***Spoiler Alert: I do reveal the ending of the book, which had a considerable twist that blew my mind a little. I will note in the blog what paragraph to skip if you'd like to read the book and ending yourself.***
Going outside of my comfort zone with books is not something I'm always very good at doing, which is why I thought that trying to read 10 new books by authors I've never read before would be good for me. I love science-fiction and fantasy, I love historical fiction and I love George R.R. Martin, so I thought I found a great start for task #65 with Pavane by Keith Roberts. It was in the Sci-Fi / Fantasy section of the library, it's an alternate-history book posing the question 'What would the world be like if Queen Elizabeth I of England had been assassinated and the Spanish had successfully conquered England?', and there's a quote by George R.R. Martin on the cover exclaiming: "[A] masterpiece... One of the greatest alternate world stories ever told." It sounded perfect to me.
Pavane does several things. First, it gives us a glimpse into a world where the year is 1968 and technology has been stymied by the church. All progress must be blessed and too much progress is considered heresy. Steam engines travel the breadth of the land, but they are very primitive engines and their owners chafe at the lack of improvements that are allowed. Secondly, the book reaches into human motivations and rebelliousness, the natural desires of people to move outside the sphere of oppressive religion and discover life for themselves. Humans constantly want to improve their situation in life, to feel as though they are advancing and goals are being reached. The Catholic Church's hold over England oppresses this advancement by taxing the country of its wealth and violently suppressing free thought. Just as Lutheran Europe swirled with antagonism towards a church which preached poverty and forgiveness yet decorated its alters with gold and destroyed its enemies with the Inquisition, so does this alternate England. The country barely remembers the days of Henry VIII and freedom from the tyranny of the Pope, but the desire for free will has begun to burn in the heart of the country. The desire for each man to make his own future, to discover his own beliefs and live his own life.
A young brother within the Catholic Church finds himself turned against the Church after he witnesses weeks of the tortures of the Inquisition in England. The skewed reasoning of the religious torturers, "Brother John, his face screwed up as if in anticipation of pain, ventured a query. "But are not your prisoners given the opportunity to confess? Were they to confess without the Questioning-" "There can be no confession," interrupted the other, "without compulsion... False confession, made to avoid the pain of Questioning, is useless to the Church and God alike. Our aim is salvation; the salvation of souls of these poor wretches in our charge, if necessary by the breaking of their bodies."* The stark description of torture and 'questioning' which follows is horrifying, the more so when its protractors shrug it off as necessary and ordinary.
*SPOILER ALERT* - NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS
I was all set to write a Blog about how power corrupts and religious certainties taken to extremes can corrupt any good in the ideology. I still believe those two things. But at the end of the book, Roberts turns the entire premise I thought he'd been driving at one his head, when it's revealed that the Church's depression of progress has actually saved humanity from worse corruption.
"The ways of the Church were mysterious, her policies never plain. The Popes knew, as we knew, that given electricity, men would be drawn to the atom. That given fission, they would come to fusion.... The Church knew there was no halting Progress; but slowing it, slowing it even by half a century, giving man time to reach a little higher toward true Reason; that was the gift she gave this world. And it was priceless."*
*SPOILER ALERT OVER*
I was suddenly drawn back to one of my favorite books, The Callahan Chronicles by Spider Robinson,where an alien reveals himself to the characters and admits that his kind has been preparing humans to slaughter themselves (for various reasons) by forcing our technological advances faster than humanity can handle them.
"We cranked your technology to a fever pitch of frenzied production, led you to build yourselves a suicidal ethic and culture, gave you toys like the atom bomb and lysergic acid to play with: we gave a loaded gun to an infant... Do you really think it accidental that your people went from outhouses to zero-gravity toilets in half a century? From the Merrimac to Skylab in one short century?... The pace of progress yanks you ahead faster than you can run. Do you not notice?"
In the technological process of human history, most of the major "modern" technology has been created in the past 200 years, an incredibly tiny time span in humanity's life. We have moved by leaps and bounds, advanced unthinkingly, always looking to improve without thinking about the cost of the improvements.
We have polluted our skies, our earth, our lakes. Weapons reach out across vast distances to kill people whose faces we have never looked upon, rendering them into nameless numbers, by products of war. One bomb has killed thousands of people. Eugenics programs to advice the human race itself has caused death in Europe, sterilization in America. And science rushes onward, always looking to advance, heedlessly rushing like a small child into the darkness without any idea of what lies ahead. In Pavane, the Church plays the role of an overly strict father, the ultimate disciplinarian, slowing humanity's progress enough so that as each new contraption, each new advance is made, we can appreciate it.
Now, these amazing advances, these miracles of technology are taken completely for granted. Travel back ten years into the past and people would be amazed at what we have. You have 100 cassettes that you put into your walkman? I have an iPod with thousands of songs on it. Those bulky DVDs? I download my movies straight onto my TV using the internet. Dial-up? Hell no, I would scream if I had to wait more than a second for each internet page to load. Your TV looks fuzzy and small... oh that's right, you don't have Flat-Screen LCD HD TVs. Wow... Playstation eh? Check out my X-Box 3 with internet feed.
Go back 50 years and the differences are even more apparent. Flying in an airplane has become something mundane instead of miraculous. A TV with a black and white picture would be unthinkable. 50 years ago, no one owned their own computer much less had internet access. People didn't have cell phones. They had to write each other letters or make expensive long-distance calls to stay in touch.
Pavanne really showed me that we live in a world of miracles. And no one cares.