Keith Roberts wrote some of the best British (for which read English, because that’s all there was) SF of the era in which he was active in the field. Indeed, his was some of the best SF of his time full stop. His well regarded (and I recommend them without reserve) novels included Pavane, Kiteworld and the tour de force that was Molly Zero – a whole novel written in the second person. A historical novel, The Boat Of Fate, which was set in Roman Britain was also well received and well worth reading. Several of his longer works were built from shorter pieces, though. Roberts always had a deft touch and his concentration on character helped to set him apart from the majority of SF practitioners. He did seem to have a thing about betrayal, however, especially of a man by a woman. Sadly he died in 2000.
Kaeti and Company contains ten stories some of which have elements of fantasy, others being more realistic in tone. On its own (save for one and that only at its end) each story paints a credible and detailed picture of the lives it portrays. Roberts certainly knew how to create atmosphere. But there is something about this collection which sits awkwardly.
The framing device for the book as a whole, where before each story Roberts apparently addresses Kaeti directly as if casting her as an actress in the “part she will take but wherein her name (along with those of some other characters) is retained from story to story – thereby providing a rationale for the book’s title – is clever but ultimately unsatisfactory. Others of these “actors” include Kerry, who nearly always wears yellow, Rodney, Bill and Pete. But precisely why is this necessary? Why not just people the stories with the characters and name them in the usual way? We are clearly not meant to find the similarly named characters the same from story to story despite their nomenclature, Kaeti varies in age for example and variously inhabits the present and the past, and yet Bill and Pete always “play” Kaeti’s mum and dad where they appear. It is, I feel, an unnecessary complication.
Again, the best tale might have been Kaeti And The Hangman, an interesting study of a condemned woman in an alternative reality, or possible future reminiscent of that in Molly Zero – except it turns out in its last paragraph to have been describing the shooting of a film script. I felt cheated by this revelation. It does beat, “I woke up and it was a dream,” but not by much; and the framing device, which presumably encouraged this choice, most certainly does not rescue it. This leaves the Clocktower Girl and Kaeti And The Zep as the most satisfying stories.
The last piece, The Dream Machine, about a movie, of which Kaeti is the star, being filmed in the narrator’s street (we are invited to believe this narrator is Roberts himself, but I resist the temptation) makes an explicit point about multiple realities existing within the same milieu but this seems to be elaborating for the sake of it.
Given the second sentence in this review you can imagine my disappointment, here; amplified all the more as I recall the Kaeti stories being lauded when they first appeared. I still have Roberts’s other Kaeti collection, Kaeti On Tour, to be read. I hope the “actress” fixation does not appear there, but I fear it will.
(I couldn’t find an embeddable picture of the Kerosina cover so the above is the Wildside Press one from 2000.)