a review by Rich Horton
On the occasion of what would have been his 83rd birthday, I am reposting this rather brief look at Keith Roberts' last novel.
Keith Roberts was one of the truly fine writers of science fiction and fantasy in the last third of the 20th Century, but save for one great novel (Pavane) he is little remembered these days. He was born in 1935, and died on October 5, 2000 (my 41st birthday, as it happens). He was an illustrator, and the mostly uncredited editor of the Moorcock era version of the UK magazine Science Fantasy (later SF Impulse), but mostly a writer. He later life was unhappy -- he had multiple sclerosis and was in constant pain, and he had many difficulties with editors and publishers, by repute mostly due to his difficult nature.
His last novel, Drek Yarman, was in the process of being serialized in the first three issues of the fine UK magazine Spectrum SF (which I truly loved), when he died. It's set in his post-apocalyptic Kiteworld future, and it's told by the title character, a violent, uncouth, self-made seaman, as a revolution by religious extremists is tearing their society (the Realm) apart. Yarman tells the story of his life. He is not a sympathetic character, really: a multiple murderer, whose life was formed by the disastrous effects of his upbringing by two alcoholics, but even more so by the effect of his incestuous love for his sister (a whore), and the actions he takes when he discovers her being propositioned by one of his neigbhourhood enemies.
He goes off to the sea, his potential relationships with women ruined by his longing for his sister, and when a disastrous trip to the island of Hy Antiel results in his fortune being made (partly because of his dishonorable acts), he ends up marrying and having kids and becoming first mate on the leading Kiteship of the Realm. But all that goes wrong as well. His dissolution is paired with an account of the dissolution of "The Realm" in this revolution. Yarman's voice is well-portrayed, and the story is interesting, and even though he is a bad man, you feel a lot of sympathy for him, because he really is ill-used by fate, and many of his actions are bad choices when no good choice was possible. This is a dark novel, and it's easy to see why it had a hard time finding a publisher, but it's worth reading. Alas, it will be very hard to find -- it has not been published since its serialization in Spectrum SF.