Review: The Alteration by Kingsley Amis
Possibly the most disturbing in my recent trio of religious-tyranny-themed science-fiction novels, Amis' novel of an English choirboy faced with castration to preserve his soprano voice shows the expertise he developed writing earlier works like Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling, The Anti-Death League, and The Green Man.
His alternate-history scenario has as its diversion-point the elevation of a certain German cleric to the See of Rome: Martin Luther became Pope Germanian I, and the Protestant Reformation never happened. Amis doesn't tell us, he slips it into a conversation between two agents of the English Inquisition's Holy Office: Monsignors Henricus and Laurentius.
Or, to give them their childhood names, Heinrich Himmler and Lavrentiy Beria.
As in Keith Robert's Pavane, the result is a Catholic Church with a potent reach over almost the entire Western world, and a 1970s English culture that feels strangely medieval. A "heretical" reformation that happened in the American colonies 125 years before is a distant and taboo topic of whispers among the Chapel music students, shared after lights-out in the dormitory with the same guilty pleasure as rumors of "science" (another taboo), and their "Counterfeit World" and "Time Romance" (science fiction and alternate history) novels.
Hubert and his family struggle with the prospect of his "invitation" to join the ranks of castrati. Counseling him to decline are his school chums, his mother, his composing teacher, and an intriguing American family at that country's embassy in London. An altered man they meet in Rome tries to convince Hubert's father to withhold permission. But the appeal of the change is strong; as an altered singer, Hubert can expect to command great fortune and temporal power to replace his manhood.
The strongest voice against the change comes from within Hubert himself. A growing attraction to the American ambassador's unruly daughter, and a chance observation of a stable-hand's encounter with a serving girl give him a new perspective on the cost of future fame.
Gripping action, subtle humor and a keen eye for the persistence of human faults in any society give this tale extra strength. There's a reason it won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science-Fiction Novel in 1977.
- I was pleased to find a couple of "TR" novels named in the schoolboys' illicit library: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, and a Keith Roberts novel named Galliard. The Dick story is not the one we know about a Nazi victory in WWII (which conflict never happened in the world of The Alteration), but instead is a strangely-real account of an England in which "the Holy Victory never happened," and thus Henry VIII's reign eventually produced a culture with science, electrical devices and flying cars. "There are always flying cars," scoffs one of Hubert's school chums.
- My advice: skip the Introduction by William Gibson to avoid spoilers, but read it after you finish the novel. Gibson makes some excellent points about the more-disturbing elements of Amis' counter-factual world.
- Amis richly lards his novel with details: Mozart survived to write well into middle-age, as did Shelley and Blake. Shakespeare's works were suppressed, but some of the stories survived, notably Hamlet.(as "The Spanish Tragedy" by Kyd). Well-known politicians and philosophers of 1970s English life have cameos, often in wildly ironic roles.
- Watch for the moment when Hubert's feelings about America change. It's shattering.