Keith Roberts (1935-2000) UK author and illustrator long resident in the south of England, where most of his best fiction was set. After working as an illustrator and cartoon animator, he began publishing science fiction with “Anita” and “Escapism” in the same issue of Science Fantasy, September/October 1964; several of his early stories were written as by Alistair Bevan.
He served as associate editor of Science Fantasy 1965-1966 and edited its successor SF Impulse for the whole of its run (March 1966-February 1967). His first novel, The Furies (July-September 1965 Science Fantasy; 1966), is the most orthodoxly structured and told of all his work, sf or otherwise, most of his later novels being fixups told from a brooding, slantwise, intensely visual point of view. The Furies is a traditional tale in the mode of the UK Disaster, in which a nuclear test goes awry, inspiring an onslaught of space-spawned giant wasps which ravage England and come close to eliminating mankind. Beyond a certain sultriness of tone, it could have been written by any of a dozen UK specialists in the Cosy Catastrophe.
With his second book, Roberts came fully into his own as a writer. Pavane (stories March-July 1966 Impulse; coll of linked stories 1968; rev with “The White Boat” [December 1966 New Worlds] added 1969) superbly depicts an Alternate History in which – Elizabeth I having been assassinated, the Spanish Armada victorious and no Protestant rise of capitalism in the offing – a technologically backward England survives under the sway of the Catholic Church Militant. The individual stories are moody, eloquent, elegiac and thoroughly convincing. The Inner Wheel (coll of linked stories 1970) deals with the kind of gestalt Superman-cum-Telepathytheme made familiar by Theodore Sturgeon‘s More Than Human (fixup 1953) and is similarly powerful, though tending to a rather uneasy sentimentality, perhaps endemic to tales of such relationships but also typical of Roberts’s handling of children and women. Anita (coll of linked stories 1970; exp 1990) is fantasy; the stories had appeared much earlier in Science Fantasy. The Boat of Fate (1971), an historical novel with a Roman setting, shares a painterly concern for primitive landscapes with The Chalk Giants (coll of linked stories 1974; cut 1975), whose separate tales elegantly embody a cyclical vision of the future of the island of Britain. The protagonist of the framing narrative (seen in the UK edition only) drives to the south coast to escape an indistinct Disaster, goes into hiding, and (depending on one’s reading) either cycles the rest of the book through his head or can be seen as himself emblematic of the movement the tales portend, from Post-Holocaust chaos through God-ridden Ruined Earth savagery back to a state premonitory of his own wounded condition.
Roberts’s early short stories were assembled in Machines and Men: Science Fiction Stories (coll 1973) and The Grain Kings (coll 1976), both being excerpted in The Passing of the Dragons(coll 1977). The title story of the second volume fascinatingly describes life on giant hotel-like grain harvesters in a world of vast farms; in the same volume, “Weihnachtsabend” (in New Worlds Quarterly 4, anth 1972, ed Michael Moorcock), perhaps Roberts’s most radical single story, hallucinatedly depicts an Alternate History in which the Nazis have won World War Two(see Hitler Wins), and expands upon the cheap manufactured Decadent paganism of the victors; the tale climaxes in a corrupt Wild Hunt whose prey is a woman. Later work was assembled in Ladies from Hell (coll 1979), The Lordly Ones (coll 1986) and Winterwood and Other Hauntings (coll 1989), the limited edition of which also contained, bound-in, The Event(1989 chap). As in his later novels, these stories increasingly display an entangled – though sometimes searching – dis-ease with human nature and sexuality, with the course of history and with the fate of the UK.
Roberts’s first novel after a gap of some years was Molly Zero (1980), in which the classic sf tale of the growth of an adolescent is – typically for Roberts – subverted by a sense that the Dystopian world into which the young female protagonist enters – an oppressive class-ridden demoralized Little England whose inhabitants are barred from the sea by metal fences – is dismayingly corrosive. It is a sense which variously though un specifically serves as background for the shadowy escapades of the eponymous heroine in the Kaeti sequence comprising Kaeti & Company (coll of linked stories 1986), Kaeti’s Apocalypse (1986 chap) and Kaeti on Tour(coll 1992); and the life of the haunting femme fatale depicted in Gráinne (1987). In the sullen quietism that underlies the tales told, these books have little of the feel of sf. Much more sf-like is the Kiteworld sequence – comprising Kiteworld (fixup 1985), the uncollected novella “Tremarest” (November 1986 Amazing) and the serial “Drek Yarman” (February-June 2000 Spectrum SF) – which invokes the atmosphere of earlier work in its depiction of a Ruined EarthBritain dominated by religious fanatics, and its Steampunk rendering of the life of the crews who man the Kiteships, which are the size of Airships, to guard the frontiers against “demons” (as the ballistic or cruise missiles of a former technological era are now remembered) in a kind of Parody of the Pax Aeronautica theme. The life of the eponymous protagonist of the book-length “Drek Yarman” re-enacts in small the deterioration of a land torn to bits by Religion, with marriage and maturity decaying inexorably (see Entropy) into despair.
As an illustrator, Roberts did much to change the appearance of UK sf magazines, notably Science Fantasy, for which he designed all but seven of the covers from January 1965 until its demise (as SF Impulse) in February 1967, and also New Worlds for a period in 1966. His boldly Expressionist covers, line-oriented, paralleled the shift in content of these magazines away from Genre SF and Fantasy towards a more free-form, speculative kind of fiction. He later did covers and interior illustrations for the book editions of New Worlds Quarterly edited by Michael Moorcock, for some of whose novels he designed covers. He also illustrated several of his own 1980s titles, and published three works of nonfiction:
The Natural History of the P.H.(1988), the initials referring to the “Primitive Heroine” who appears throughout Roberts’s work, a figure men may treat as a lamia but who is in truth a figure of charismatic, self-reliant integrity; Irish Encounters: A Short Travel (dated 1988 but 1989 chap); and Lemady: Episodes of a Writer’s Life (1997), an uneasy memoir.
Later in life, Roberts lived in Salisbury. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990 and died of its complications in October 2000. Obituaries recalled him as a talented but personally “difficult” author, with a history of disputes with publishers, editors and colleagues.