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The Alteration (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – May 7, 2013
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“Buoyantly inventive from its ground-plan to its remotest pinnacles and twirly bits, Kingsley Amis’s new novel has almost nothing expectable about it, except that it is a study of tyranny.” —John Carey, New Statesman
"One of the best—possibly the best—alternate-worlds novels in existence." —Philip K. Dick
“The Green Man and The Alteration will retain their important places in the history of supernatural fiction and science fiction.” —Michael Dirda
“In one of his funniest novels, The Alteration, Kingsley Amis imagined a counterfactual world in which the Reformation had failed. Martin Luther had not plunged northern Europe into religious revolt, but instead became Pope Germanicus I. Prince Arthur of England did not die, so his odious brother Henry never became king. Henry's malcontent Protestant followers, after an abortive rebellion, were banished to New England, where they eventually invented free trade, electricity and personal hygiene. So Europe in the 1960s groaned under a papistical Haps burg tyranny. Harold Wilson was pope, dispensing tea in the Vatican ('Shall we be mother?'), and papal scouts combed English cathedrals for likely singing boys who, after suitable surgery ('The Alteration'), became castrati in the Sistine Chapel choir.” —Eamon Duffy, Sunday Times (UK)
“Amis, not content with writing scholarly treatments of the subject, produced a historical/futurological novel, The Alteration…I might add that the subject of sex in this work is introduced in the most radical and subversive way, though without the smallest hint of the pornographic.” —Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly
From the Inside Flap
Hubert, the ten-year-old chorister's glorious voice must be preserved at all costs. In Amis's quasi-medieval England of 1976, a wickedly brilliant Swiftian satire takes shape. The modest proposal? Well, it stands to reason that castration is clearly the only answer.
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Or, to give them their childhood names, Himmler and Beria.
As in Keith Robert's "Pavane" (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. The "heretical" reformation that happened in the American colonies is a distant and taboo topic of whispers among the school-boys in the choir, shared along with "science" (another taboo) and their "Counterfeit World" and "Time Romance" (science fiction and alternate history) novels after lights out in their dormitories.
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. Even another altered man 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 his proposed future.
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 (The Man in the High Castle) 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.
* Watch for the moment when Hubert's feelings about America change. It's shattering.
In THE ALTERATION, Amis develops a different dynamic. In this case, he has written an alternate history set in in 1976, in which England is dominated by an autocratic Catholic church, electricity is considered profane, science is distrusted, and the relationship of people to the church has not really evolved much since the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, the protagonist in THE ALTERATION is an innocent and pious a 10 year-old musical prodigy with a beautiful voice, who the Catholic Church wants to turn into a castrato. In Kingsley's alternate world, this procedure is known as an alteration.
So how does Amis perform in this alternate world with a boy protagonist? IMO, the alternate history was cleverly imagined and internally consistent. And in writing this alternate history, Amis had the chance to deride the real England of 1976 ("...the tiny incident stood for much of what was to be seen and heard in England: careless, bumptious, over-liberal, negligent of order.") But how about Hubert Anvil, the boy with the angelic voice? IMO, nope; too intelligent, too able to engage adults on issues, too clear in his reasoning. He's a consistent, albeit ingenuous, note of falsity in an otherwise amusing book.
Hubert's personality actually touches on the BIG weakness of this novel. TA is one of those novels where characters define themselves through conversation. "You mean to say that..." "If we do this does it mean that..." "What you're telling me is that..." You get the idea: the characters in this novel are created through their conversation, not their action. Furthermore, the characters are basically mouthpieces for the King, who came out on the right side of all issues in this book, even though he was known as a curmudgeon and reactionary at this phase in his life. Face it: Amis believed in science and personal decision and saw how tyranny operates.
Regardless, this is a good, not great book, and recommended for fans of Kingsley. But in the future, I plan to read DIFFICULTIES WITH GIRLS and TAKE A GIRL LIKE YOU, where Kingsley Amis operates in his sweet spot.