The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Rearranging four centuries of history, Pavane postulates a successful invasion of England by the Spanish Armada and the subsequent suppression of social and technological change by the Catholic church. It is a beautifully haunting evocation of a quasi-medieval England preserved as well as transformed by this historical detour.

Pavane takes its title from a stately court dance of the sixteenth century; appropriately, the book is divided into six distinctive “measures” and a brief “coda.” In the opening section, “The Lady Margaret,” Jesse Strange, one of the “hauliers” who pilot the steam-powered freight engines that travel the desolate roads of southern England, finally confesses his long-buried love for a woman, only to be rejected by her. Apart from references to the city of “Londinium” and the papal edict of 1910 restricting the use of petroleum, this sensitive story of love and heartbreak could easily take place in the present. The image of steam engines running without rails, however, is a clear and effective illustration of the theme of alternative history.

The book’s second section, “The Signaller,” follows Rafe Bigland from a childhood dominated by his fascination with the towers that transmit semaphore signals across the country, through his entry into the guild that runs the towers, to his untimely death at a lonely outpost deep in the forests of England. The story focuses primarily on the social consequences of a communications system based neither on the delivery of written documents nor on the transmission of electronic signals. A fantastic element enters the text when a mysterious girl appears to comfort the dying Rafe with songs from England’s mythic past. These songs present a cyclical view of history that foreshadows the final coda by conflating Christianity and Norse mythology.

In the third section, “Brother John,” an...

(The entire section is 788 words.)