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Vintage Treasures: The Passing of the Dragons by Keith Roberts

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

The Passing of the Dragons-small The Passing of the Dragons-back-small

Keith Roberts, who was active as an SF writer from the 60s through the 80s, has had the kind of posthumous success most authors can only dream of. His 1968 fix-up novel Pavane was called “Alternate History’s Lost Masterpiece” by io9 in 2009, nine years after his death:

I found it dense, unclear…and brilliant… This is a book to read once, get stuck, return to with a clear head, blast through, and then read again in search of deeper meanings. They are definitely there, and they are definitely worth finding.

In a 2016 piece at Tor.com Dave Hutchinson called Pavane “a significant achievement, by any measure. I was utterly bowled over by it.” And in his SF Site review back in 2001, Rich Horton compared it favorably to The Man in the High Castle:

The recent crop of alternate history stories, enjoyable as some of them may be, seem largely minor works… The shadows of two great AH novels of the 60s loom over the present-day offerings, both books with their ambition and success, and their moral centre, trivializing the current work. These are Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1963), winner of the Hugo Award, and Keith Roberts’ Pavane.

Okay, okay, I get it. I should read Pavane. But, you know, I’m busy. Doesn’t Keith Roberts have anything shorter I can read, just so I can nod along at science fiction cocktail parties, and mumble things like, “Yeah, totally love the guy?” Yes. Yes he does. Thank God. Turns out he has no less than nine collections, including a sort of “Best of” collection of his early short fiction, The Passing of the Dragons, published in paperback by Berkley Medallion in 1977.

The Passing of the Dragons contains selected fiction from two earlier Roberts collections published in the UK, Machines and Men (Panther, 1974) and The Grain Kings (Panther, 1977).

Keith Roberts Machines and Men Keith Roberts The Grain Kings Panther-small

Cover art by Anthony Roberts and Chris Foss

It contains a dozen stories published between 1966 – 1972, chiefly in British anthologies like John Carnell’s long-running New Writings in SF. It contains the novella “The Grain Kings,” and one story in the Pavane cycle, “The White Boat.” Here’s the complete TOC.

“The Deeps” (Orbit 1, 1966)
“Therapy 2000” (New Writings in S-F 15, 1969)
“Boulter’s Canaries” (New Writings in S-F 3, 1965)
“Synth” (New Writings in SF-8, 1966)
“Manscarer” (New Writings in S-F 7, 1966)
“Coranda” (New Worlds, January 1967, 1967)
“The Grain Kings” (New Worlds Quarterly 3, 1972)
“The White Boat” (New Worlds, December 1966, 1966)
“The Passing of the Dragons” (New Writings in SF—21, 1972)
“The Lake of Tuonela” (New Writings in SF 23, 1973)
“I Lose Medea” (New Worlds Quarterly 3, 1972)
“Weihnachtsabend” (New Worlds Quarterly 4, 1972)

Here’s the back cover of The Grain Kings, because I really wish I had a copy.

Keith Roberts The Grain Kings Panther-back-small

If you’re planning on attending a lot of science fiction cocktail parties, and want to sound informed and knowledgeable like me, you’ll need your own copy of The Passing of the Dragons. Fortunately, copies are not hard to find. The one above was one of a pair of Roberts books I bought on eBay for $6 back in December. The other book was his 1974 collection The Chalk Giants, with a cool Richard Powers cover (click the image below to embiggen).

Keith Roberts The Passing of the Dragons The Chalk Giants-small

Shouldn’t be too hard to find your own copy.

Our previous coverage of Keith Roberts includes:

Classic Alternatives: Keith Roberts’ Pavane by Matthew David Surridge
Vintage Treasures: Pavane by Keith Roberts

The Passing of the Dragons was published by Berkley Medallion in April 1977. It is 315 pages, priced at $1.75. It has never been reprinted, and there is no digital edition.

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

9 Comments »

  1. Of course you should read PAVANE. It probably is the best Alternate History novel of all time.

    Roberts was a wonderful writer. Alas, he apparently did himself no favors with his treatment of editors and publishers.

    Comment by Rich Horton - February 20, 2019 10:04 am

  2. Everybody tells me I should read Pavane. It’s funny, I never got out of the habit of approaching writers through short stories first. There’s no real logic behind it, just a personal preference. Sort of like warming up before going up to bat, I guess.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 20, 2019 11:10 am

  3. John, Pavane should work well for you on the basis you mention. It’s a linked-stories novel, somewhat like Jack Vance’s ‘The Dying Earth’, where the setting is a key aspect to the book’s progress. Start with the first self-contained ‘story’ and I suspect you’ll find it to be the masterpiece that many of us say it is!

    Comment by candor15 - February 20, 2019 12:32 pm

  4. I would also recommend Pavane, almost precisely for the reason that candor15 offers, it being a “fix-up” work of individual stories, but also due to its Coda, which most unites it with The Man in the High Castle as a work of Modernist fiction, looking more into the interior life of the characters than to the external “alt-history” plotting.

    As a side note, the article keeps referring to The Passing of the Giants, but that seems a jumble of The Passing of the Dragons and The Chalk Giants. Or possibly another edition of which I unawares (as with some many things, alas).

    Comment by Eugene R. - February 20, 2019 1:23 pm

  5. Eugene, candor15 — You’re right. It’s a fix-up novel, so it combines the best features of a novel and a short story collection! That should make it much more approachable for folks like me.

    And Eugene — you’re absolutely right about my error with the title. That was a copy and paste error that multiplied much too aggressively! I’ve fixed it; thanks for pointing it out.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 20, 2019 1:42 pm

  6. I read this the first time when I was a kid and it was so good and strange. Pavane and The Chalk Giants were nearly as good, but this is the one I feel I should reread

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - February 20, 2019 2:13 pm

  7. Okay, the copy of Pavane I picked up several WFC’s ago just got bumped a few spots up the TBR pile.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - February 21, 2019 12:49 am

  8. > I read this the first time when I was a kid and it was so good and strange. Pavane
    > and The Chalk Giants were nearly as good, but this is the one I feel I should reread

    Well read as always, Fletcher!

    Comment by John ONeill - February 21, 2019 10:56 am

  9. > Okay, the copy of Pavane I picked up several WFC’s ago just got bumped a few spots up the TBR pile.

    Let me know what you think, Sarah. Love to get your thought, too.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 21, 2019 10:57 am


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