Keith Roberts Essay - Critical Essays

Roberts, Keith


Roberts, Keith 1935–

Roberts is an English novelist, short story writer, editor, illustrator, and cartoonist. He is best known for his science fiction and fantasy, and has written under the pseudonyms of Alistair Bevan and David Stringer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

The Inner Wheel is one of those novels which begin with disembodied voices…. After some involvements and misunderstandings, and a last-minute halt to World War III, all ends predictably. This is school of Wyndham, without John Wyndham's smooth way with action—or his crisp enjoyment of English life turned upside down.

"Deadly Dials, Queer Quasars," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3567, July 9, 1970, p. 741.∗

Jonathan Meades

As seems to be the all too frequent case with SF writers Keith Roberts is full of excellent and imaginative ideas yet executes his stories—which are, for the most part, nothing more than vehicles for them, or dramatic illustrations of them—with a singular lack of style and conviction. The first half of [Machines and Men] comprises pieces concerned with intrusions on the 'normal order'. These intrusions are natural—the basic elements of SF can be counted on the fingers of one (human) hand—of a temporal, technological and telepathic nature. Anxious to provide recognisable, safe and ordinary contemporary backdrops as a contrast to the phenomenal events depicted the author sets three stories in provincial English towns and peoples them with characters who might be best described as saloon bar odd-balls…. These mostly unappealing characters find themselves involved in adventures of strange, bizarre, weird and totally predictable sorts. The best service the reviewer can render Roberts is to list his ideas, his initial premises, his really quite inspired fancies. They include murder by telepathy …, a form of cinematic representation which goes far beyond 3-D, the use of subliminal data in feature films and the delightful device for improving a car's performance employed by a shipwrecked navigator from outer space who lands in the Black Country….

The stories in 'Man' are all set in future and distinctly dystopian...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Peter Ackroyd

I have always thought that atomic desolation will hasten the advent of true Christianity, when the poor will inherit what is left of the earth, but now, according to Mr Roberts, so will the emotionally unstable…. [In The Chalk Giants] Mr Roberts sanctifies death and perversity with an ironic, apocalyptic grandeur…. Mr Roberts has seen the future, and it almost works…. [There is a moral] somewhere, but I am not going to stop and look. Indeed as Mr Roberts's narrative escalates, there seem to be a great many morals but unfortunately they remain at the stage of grim caricature.

It is not that the writing does not have its moments of pathos and subtlety; the life and eventual death of Stan is sad enough to be interesting, and Mr Roberts interweaves his death-throes with the no less painful lacerations of future shock. I suspected at first that the forward glimpses were fragments of Stan's leukaemic nightmare, but they become too unsubtle even for that…. [I am afraid that Mr Roberts world is] crude, and his narrative degenerates into stock historical fiction….

Peter Ackroyd, "After the Holocaust," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 232, No. 7599, February 16, 1974, p. 203.∗

The beginning [of The Chalk Giants] is promising: fat middle-aged Potts is driving his Austin Champ westwards through Army roadblocks, trying to reach Corfe Castle where he and some ill-assorted acquaintances will set up an embattled community in the hopes of outliving some unspecified holocaust. But the book deteriorates rapidly thereafter. What was well written becomes overwritten, and the tense storyline becomes increasingly diffuse and impressionistic. The bulk of the narrative degenerates into dismal Celtic fantasy in the Moorcockian tradition, with Potts lying in bed and dreaming scenes which perhaps took place on the same site at previous crises in history. Rape, superstition and general pillage clutter the pages and negate the lingering hard reality of the beginning, with its late twentieth-century world of pillboxes and nuclear fallout. Potts may be dreaming of the past or foreseeing a primitive future; but by then it all seems too inconsequential to worry about.

"Science Fiction in Short," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3758, March 15, 1974, p. 269.∗

Gerald Jonas

Yes, of course, ["The Chalk Giants"] … is too ambitious. How else can a reviewer describe a novel that attempts to chronicle the rise of a new, post-nuclear-holocaust civilization—wars, religion, politics, philosophy, literature and all—in less than two hundred pages? But having faulted Roberts for his lack of proportion, let me immediately add that "The Chalk Giants" is far more successful than it has any right to be.

The premise of the book is that the Bomb has wiped out all traces of civilization-as-we-know-it, leaving a handful of human survivors in a state of savagery. As these survivors begin the long climb upward, on an island that was once England, they unwittingly retrace the paths their forebears took…. Synopsized, it sounds too pat, too easy: a dollop of "The Golden Bough" here, a bit of "Morte d'Arthur" there, stir in some "Bullfinch's Mythology" and Biblical echoes, and serve with an air of wide-eyed discovery.

But Roberts avoids most of the pitfalls of this kind of S.F. myth-making, primarily because his narrative strategy is impeccable. Writing a sturdy, richly detailed third-person prose that wins our confidence without ever asking for it, he introduces us in each chapter to some ordinary people who are driven by circumstances to extraordinary acts of creation and destruction. In the following chapters, the people we have just met are spoken of as legends by other ordinary people, who are then stretched on the rack of history to become the legendary figures of succeeding chapters….

What seemed on first reading to be a fable of man's unquenchable spirit comes, in retrospect, to stand for everything that precedes myths—all the false starts, the misguided efforts, the unsung exploits, the lucky and unlucky turns on which the fragile superstructure of civilization rests. (p. 22)

Gerald Jonas, "Of Things to Come," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1975, pp. 22, 26.∗

Algis Budrys

Keith Roberts is the best English SF writer. He is not the best novelist—Arthur C. Clarke still is, I suppose, or David Compton when he's on—but by a measurable margin, Keith Roberts at anything less than novel length can do it all. The Passing of The Dragons [a collection of short stories] causes me to say all that.

There are apparently no limits to Roberts' range. (pp. 24-5)

Logic dictates that Roberts must in fact have limits to the range of themes he is willing to tackle, and observation shows that he has a tendency to underplay too much, which is sometimes to the detriment of a given piece of work. But it is going to take a full scale critical investigation to determine those limits, because Roberts does not let you see them, and there is never anything wrong with any given Roberts story that is so bad you expect anything less but the best from the next one.

And he has engaging recurrent attributes. The verisimilitude with which he describes obsolete or variant machinery—the steam road engines and semaphore station in Pavane, the canal lock mechanisms in "The Lake of Tuonela," the harvesters in "The Grain Kings"—is a delight to the mind. The sentence and paragraph rhythms with which he evokes the pulsebeat of an ocean in "The Deeps" or the emotions of Becky in "The White Boat," are a mature strength.

He has yet to learn how to bring all this to bear on a major theme over novel length. Perhaps this is because he can do so much in so few words that it will require a towering central statement before he writes a book he cannot exhaust before he completes it. But not everyone needs to be the novelist. That may be where the money is, but for some people it's not where the good work is. (p. 25)

Algis Budrys, "Books: 'The Passing of the Dragons'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1977 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol. 54, No. 2, February, 1978, pp. 20-5.∗