Keith Roberts Algis Budrys - Essay

Algis Budrys

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗