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on 12 October 2011
Like Keith Roberts's "Pavane", "The Alteration" is an alternate history novel in which the Reformation was defeated and Europe in the second half of the twentieth century remains under the control of an all-controlling Roman Catholic Church. (Kingsley Amis makes a playful reference to Roberts's book, acknowledging that it served as his inspiration). As in Roberts's novel, the Church has not only imposed a quasi-totalitarian theocratic dictatorship but has also, being extremely suspicious of science in all its forms, acted as a brake on technological progress; there are, for example, no aircraft apart from airships. (Amis is not always consistent on this point, however; we learn that there are railway trains capable of travelling from London to Rome in just seven hours, via a Channel Bridge).

Roberts imagined what would have happened if Elizabeth I had been assassinated and the Spanish Armada had been victorious. Amis's point of divergence takes place several decades earlier. In his parallel universe Prince Arthur, the elder son of Henry VII, survived long enough to become King and to father a son by Catherine of Aragon. Upon Arthur's death his younger brother Henry the Abominable (our timeline's Henry VIII) usurped his nephew's crown, whereupon Pope Germanian I (our timeline's Martin Luther) announced a crusade to restore the rightful heir to the throne.

The word "alteration" in the title has a double meaning. On the one hand it refers to the way in which Amis himself has altered history, producing a world which has certain resemblances to our own, yet in many ways is very different. On the other hand it is, in his alternative England, a euphemism for castration, the fate with which the main character, Hubert Anvil, is threatened.

The story is set in the year 1976 (the year the novel was published). Hubert is a ten-year-old chorister at St George's Basilica, Coverley. (Coverley, also known as Cowley near Oxford, is the place where the Pope's forces defeated those of Henry the Abominable and has been made the ecclesiastical capital of England in place of Canterbury). Hubert has a particularly fine voice, and the Church hierarchy, including the Pope himself, have decided that he should be "altered" so that he may sing as a soprano in the choir of St Peter's, Rome, and in this quasi-totalitarian society, what the Pope wants, the Pope generally gets.

There is, however, one possible way out. In Robert's universe, the Catholic Church dominated the entire Christian world. In Amis's, Catholicism prevails throughout Europe, including Russia. (What happened to the Orthodox Church is never explained). Protestantism has, however, survived in one corner of the globe, the "Republic of New England", roughly speaking the Eastern seaboard of North America, which for four centuries has functioned as a sanctuary for religious dissidents. Hubert takes refuge in the New Englander embassy, where the liberal ambassador makes plans to assist his escape.

Despite the similarities between Amis's imagined world and Roberts's, the two books are very different in tone, "Pavane" being poetic and philosophical, at times almost mystical, whereas "The Alteration" is sharply satirical. Unlike Roberts, Amis ponders upon how famous individuals from history and from his own day might have fared in his altered world. We learn, for example, that Shakespeare narrowly avoided being burned at the stake and was exiled to New England. Heinrich Himmler and Lavrenty Beria both became Cardinals and high-ranking officers of the Holy Office, as the Inquisition is now known.

This last detail gives a clue to Amis's satirical intentions. Originally on the Left (he was briefly a member of the Communist Party), he later moved sharply to the Right, and by the seventies was one of the most politically conservative figures in the British literary establishment. He was also an atheist who distrusted organised religion. "The Alteration" is therefore a double satire aimed both at socialism and at Christianity, especially Catholicism. There is also an element of anti-Americanism in that the Republic of New England, which represents our timeline's USA, is a state founded on liberal ideals but which has nevertheless managed to enact some repressive laws. (Native Americans are subject to apartheid-style racial discrimination, and although the New Englanders are horrified by the idea of "altering" young boys we learn that they reserve castration as a judicial punishment for fornicators and homosexuals).

Whatever the failings of New Englander secular politics, however, Amis presents their Protestant clergy in a more positive light than their Catholic counterparts, who not only are corrupt and oppressive but also frequently lack any real belief in the religion they cynically use to justify their own power. A number of Church officials are named after left-wing thinkers or politicians. We learn, for example, that the leftist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is in this world a Jesuit. The head of the Holy Office in England is named Lord Stansgate (the title disclaimed by Tony Benn), and we meet two officers of that organisation named Foot (as in Michael) and Redgrave (as in the left-wing acting dynasty). The Pope, John XXIV, portrayed as murderously ruthless and Machiavellian beneath an outward show of avuncularity, is a Yorkshireman; some have seen him as a disguised portrait of the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The implication is that, had it not been for the Reformation which broke its monopoly on European thought, Catholicism could have developed into a totalitarian system akin to the Communism which Amis (in common with a number of other former Communists) had come to regard as the greatest threat to liberty in the late twentieth century. The fate which threatens Hubert is symbolic of the doom which has befallen European civilisation, metaphorically castrated by a despotic Church. Although the story is set in an alternative world it has its implications for our own timeline; Amis has some sharp criticisms of Catholic doctrines such as priestly celibacy and the ban on contraception. Another theme raised by the book is the question of whether art, however technically accomplished it may be, has any value if it has been produced to the greater glory of a tyrannical regime.

The book's main weakness is that, whereas some of the minor characters, such as the Pope or Hubert's cynical schoolmate Decuman, are vividly drawn, the main character remains a mere cipher. Hubert never comes to life as an individual, and moreover always seems too mature for his supposed age, more like a teenager than a ten-year-old. Its main strength is the skill with which Amis conjures up his alternative world and uses it to comment satirically on our own. "The Alteration" contains much to interest even those who do not share Amis's political and theological positions.
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on 10 November 2004
Hubert Anvil is ten years old and lives in 1976 in a Britain in which the Reformation never took place. He is, his tutors believe, an amazingly talented singer and composer, and the vicious Catholic theocracy which controls most of the world wishes to preserve his singing voice by the simple expedient of making him a castrato, the `alteration' of the title, although the title also refers, one presumes, to the alteration of history which led to this beautifully delineated society.

Although the narrative very much follows Hubert and his indecision and ultimate rebellion against this process, it also, mostly through Hubert's eyes, shows us the complex and highly detailed world which Amis has created.

The author certainly relishes this attack on the Catholic Church, made all the more powerful by its abstraction from our world to this one, allowing us to see with fresh eyes practices which the Church not only condoned but encouraged, and attitudes which are still prevalent today.

Hubert and his friends at school are fans of TR fiction (Time Romance) or CW (Counterfeit worlds), copies of which one of Hubert's friends buys illicitly from the brewer's apprentice. Their latest find is `The Man in The High Castle' by Philip K Dick which, Hubert hears, features an alternate Earth in which everyone is allowed to use electricity. Later, Hubert acquires another CW book, Keith Roberts' `Galliards' which is no doubt Roberts' version of `Pavane' in Hubert's world, seeing as `Pavane' uses essentially the same premise as Amis.

America is known as New England and is a fast-developing country where the Catholic Church does not have so strong a hold and where passenger pigeons still fly in millions across the skies.

Amis' characterisation is wonderful, peopling the novel as he does with Dickensian grotesques such as the Fagin-like Jacob who kidnaps Hubert and plans to hold him for ransom, incidentally passing on the information that that the Catholics have pre-empted nazi procedures and confiscated all Jewish property and business interests and force Jews to wear a yellow star sewn on to their clothes.

The Pope is a Yorkshireman and though his initial avuncular homeliness is engaging (when Hubert and his father are invited to the Vatican) it masks a ruthless psychopathic nature which is prepared to employ further Nazi tactics to deal with the world's population problem.

This novel is sheer joy and deserves re-reading, for it is full of secret gems of observation, in-jokes, subtle sketches of characterisation and shows wicked insight regarding the internal political machinations of the Church.

I for one will never look at a Pope in the same way again, which would, I imagine, please Kingsley Amis no end.
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on 11 February 2011
This is a book self conciously in the vein of Philip Dick's classic "The Man in teh High Castle". Indeed, this book actually mention's Dick's work! But for all that it seems to be following a path set by another writer, this does not come across as a derivative work.

Hubert Anvil has a wonderful voice in a world in which Martin Luther became Pope and there was no protestant revolution. In this world, Britain is dominated by the Catholic Church, and the Pope is himself English. The church feels the gift of Hubert's voice should be preserved. Unsurprisingly Hubert comes to a different view on that issue.

The book is a clever Alternative History story (Counterfeit World's is the book's own term for this). In the book, our world is the Aletrnative History in a clever reflection of reality. The book itself tries to make some profound comment too, and teh extent to which this succeeds is a little tricky to judge. The actual scenario of Luther becoming pope in an unreformed church just seems too counter-factual for me! As did some of what the author made of all this. But with a willing suspension of disbelief, the tale hangs together well enough.

Personally I did not like the author's writing style though. It felt clipped and sometimes clunky - but in part this seems to point to the age of the work. I have not read much Kingsley Amis, and I don't find myself longing to read more.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 September 2015
I've come back to this book after a couple of decades and it still holds up well as one of the two great alternative history books where there is no Reformation in Europe, leaving the Catholic church with a stranglehold that limits the development of science, technology and society (the other, of course, is Keith Roberts' lyrical Pavane).

The central theme to The Alteration is whether a ten-year-old boy with a superb singing voice should be turned into a castrato to preserve that voice for life at significant cost for the boy - but Kingsley Amis has immense fun with many references to familiar people, books and events, seen in the different light of the tightly Catholic Europe. The strange mix of Tudor and 1970s is done beautifully and atmospherically, as are the many differences between their world and ours (though it's never properly explained why Cowley, now known as Coverley, is the capital, rather than London). There are Protestants in this world - but they are mostly limited to New England, which despite being arguably better than Europe has its own problems.

Altogether a rich and delightful book with enough varied topics (the passage of child to adult, for instance, and the nature of being 'gifted' as well as the obvious social and religious themes) to engage anyone. I do have two issues. The minor one is that it is written in a language that is modern, but with a period feel to deepen that Tudor/1970s mix - which is fine, but distances the reader a little. The rather bigger one is the major plot twist in the final segment of the book - I won't give it away, but this is a twist that will not only have a fair number of readers wincing, but that is so improbable in the context that it makes the ending seem contrived. I understand what Amis is doing here, but he should have found a different way to do it.

Despite that, though, this is a great example of that wonderful mix of science fiction and historical fiction that is an alternative history, and well worth a try.
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on 12 March 2014
Most "alternate histories" deal with a world in which the Allies lost WWII, but this is more audacious in imagining a world which diverges from ours in the 16th Century. There has been no Reformation in Europe, Luther has become Pope (and built a gloomy Teutonic St Peter's). The Tudor dynasty has produced male heirs without recourse to divorce, and the English Empire still rules the waves; Scotland is only North England, and Ireland West England. The Catholic hierarchy and a sinister supporting secular police keep everyone in their place. Science has been discouraged, so there are airships, but no planes, no electricity, low literacy levels and standards of living.
Corruption and hypocrisy abound, and if there are no European wars, there are always Moslems and Russian Orthodox lands with whom "Holy Wars" can be fought.
The guileless boy protagonist seeks to escape castration to preserve his singing voice with the Ambassador of "New England" - a small and despised USA. There a Reformation has taken place, but their apparent openness and good sense proves a sham when their strict apartheid for Native Americans is revealed.
Many real people pop up in roles they might have suited in Amis's fictional world; Jean-Paul Sartre is a Jesuit monsignor - makes sense to me! Mostly this still works, but the bluff Yorkshire Pope was probably more easily spotted as Harold Wilson when the book came out.
Although I'm a practising Catholic, I didn't find this satire offensive. Anyway, with Pope Francis around, it's easier to take some flak!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 November 2013
"The Alteration" by Kingsley Amis is one of two famous alternative history novels (the other being "Pavane (S.F. MASTERWORKS)" by Keith Roberts which are set in worlds where the reformation either never got going at all (as here) or was strangled at birth (in "Pavane").

It is set in an alternative 1976 in which the Roman Catholic Church dominates almost the whole world, with the partial exception of New England (a country covering part of the area which in our world is the USA and Canada).

Early in the book we are introduced to two cardinals, Monsignor Henricius and Monsignor Lavrentius, and told that they are known familiarly in their own countries as Himmler and Beria. At first you think that someone is making a nasty joke about them but then you realise that these actually are Himmler and Beria as they manifest in the universe of this story and it is the sort of world where men like that could become princes of the church.

The pope, John XXIV, is an avuncular bluff Yorkshireman but it soon becomes obvious that this all-powerful figure is not as benevolent as he appears.

Amis uses the device of having characters point out the difference between their "real" history and that in an alternative history novel, this world's version of Philip K Dick's "The Man in the High Castle (Penguin Modern Classics)" to explain the differences between their history and ours. Martin Luther became pope instead of leading the reformation.

The central figure of the book is a ten year old choirboy, Hubert Anvil, who has an incredibly beautiful singing voice. So beautiful that certain people want him to keep that voice past puberty by means of "an alteration" e.g. castration ...

The alternative world is described in great detail and with a fair degree of cleverly ironic black humour.

Well worth a read if you are into alternative history. This book is not as well-known now as it was when it came out, but this is not because there is anything wrong with it.
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on 23 December 2015
Kingsley Amis is a writer whose star appears to be undeservedly waning but which I am increasingly warming to, especially as he was more than happy to add a number of science fiction stories to the his literary output. This includes two alternative histories of which this is one.
I remember picking this book up in a school library 37 years ago but being put off by the blurb on the black which focused on the possible castration of the protagonist. However I am glad to have encountered it again. SF fans will love the debate between the book’s boy choristers on how to describe science fiction literature in a culture where science is reviled, and they will also welcome the references to other counterfactual / alternative history books including versions of Pavane and the Man in a High Castle.

Even if the core plot fails to win you over much fun can be had in picking out the hordes of famous figures from our world who appear or are mentioned including both Harold Wilson and Martin Luther as popes, and Rudyard Kipling as a former "First Citizen" (President) of a North American state that retains science, Protestantism and slavery.
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on 12 January 2013
KIngsley Amis's classic vision of a world in which the Reformation never took place, and Martin Luther became the Pope, is a tour de force of the 'alternate history' genre, and a deserving winner of the John W Campbell Award. You will end up feeling very sorry for poor Hubert Anvil, and the vista of Cardinals Himmler and Beria is truly terrifying!
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on 18 May 2014
I was disappointed with this book, having read Ann Rice's "Cry to Heaven" on the same topic. Precious, stilted and complicated
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on 21 September 2013
Amis provides a very different view of what might have happened if the Reformation had taken place in a different way. Worth a read
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