Drek Yarman by Keith Roberts

Spectrum, 2000, 138pp, £3.99
reviewed in Vector 211, May-June 2000

This is not an article of faith, it is, as far as I am concerned, a statement of fact: even when not firing on all cylinders, Keith Roberts can knock the spots off most other science fiction writers. Drek Yarman is clearly not an example of Roberts at his very best, but it is still an enthralling companion piece to Kiteworld, which makes surprising not to say shocking that it is only now, and in the pages of such a risky venture as a small science fiction magazine, that this short novel is seeing the light of day.

Drek Yarman recounts the moment that Kiteworld’s Realm fell apart. Typically, Roberts pays very little attention to the big picture: the rise of the fundamentalist Ultras or the reasons for their sudden violent revolt do not matter anywhere near so much as the personal experience of one man caught up in the violence, and in his own history of failures, betrayals and misunderstandings that are highlighted by this experience. The macroscopic is never more than a pale reflection of the microscopic, where we fail as individuals is where we fail as social or political creatures. And make no mistake, although the Kiteworld stories, as those of Pavane and The Chalk Giants before them, posit a world ruled and split by the Church, the Church here is seen simply as a system of government; belief, faith and ritual play no part in the way we view the Vars, Middlers and Ultras. It makes no difference whether demons exist, nor whether the kites do or even could protect against them; what matters is always how people treat each other, and that is where the real threat always lies.

Roberts is a curiosity among science fiction writers in that he does not invent vast new technologies or astoundingly different worlds. Characters in the Realm wear leather skirts and jeans, while Roberts, as he has done before, betrays an enormous curiosity about the workings of small, everyday, old machines. There were the steam trains in Pavane, for instance, the system of cables and pulleys that control the kites in Kiteworld, and here there is a great amount of detail about the workings of small working boats. Something of the same fascination with the old and the ordinary spills over into Roberts’s characterisation. During one night, interrupted by fires, explosions and gunfire from the catastrophe going on around him, Drek Yarman sits in a room nursing a wound and a bottle of wine, and recalls the story of his life. And he tells that story in the rough working class demotic, abrupt and impatient, that Roberts first used as far back as The Furies, and which even then was probably out of date as a reflection of genuine working class speech patterns. But that sort of fidelity is not the point. We learn a lot about Yarman, not just from what he tells us but from the way he says it, and not all of it is pleasant: he is a violent man never really capable of forming a proper relationship with others. He has a working class chip on his shoulder, resentful of his lack of education, his lack of opportunity, always able to find a fault in others to excuse his own failings. Yet Roberts makes Yarman vividly real, convinces us to see his life through his eyes, so we are caught up, at least for a while, in ideas of classless nobility, in resentment at the authorities that keep natural ability down; until we begin to recognise the brutality, the blindness, the wilfulness that turns this into a tale of personal tragedy rather than the right-wing libertarianism some commentators have identified in his work.

The tragedy carries over to the women whose influence brackets Yarman’s life. The first is Stel, his sister, who uses prostitution as a way out of their poverty, gives Yarman his first sexual experience, provokes his first major act of violence, and precipitates his own flight from home. The second is Sinki, another prostitute and Yarman’s personal demon who enters his life devastatingly at the end. Both are identical to all the women who have frequented Roberts’s work since Pete in The Furies. They are slim, boyish, with a taste for short skirts or tight jeans, and they are self-reliant. Stel proclaims at one point that she enjoys prostitution – the sort of direct engagement with what should be morally questionable that has been common in Roberts’s work since Brother John in Pavane. Are the two identical child-women the same? I doubt it, despite the fact that we are very carefully not told the fate of either of them, but they are certainly both re-incarnations of Kaeti and Grainne and all his other multi-girls.

Drek Yarman, then, is a work that explores the same themes and manners Roberts has explored throughout his career. It does so with all the lapel-grabbing narrative power that Roberts has at his disposal; it is a good, gripping read. If the story feels a little more like a retrenchment than it does an advance, that is hardly surprising. Roberts was already ill when he completed the story in the early 1990s, he is now unable to write, which makes this almost certainly his last work. Given that this is at least as good as many another sf novel seeing print these days, and given Roberts’s undoubted importance in the genre, this publication in Spectrum SF must be applauded. But how much louder must we lament the failure of any other publisher to bring this work into print before now.