We live in an age in which a reality TV star has ascended to the highest office in the United States and is conducting his presidency through Twitter. We are in a world where England’s complicated relationship with Europe has turned positively rabid. Intractable conflicts in the Middle East burn on and on, and the entire world seems to be in turmoil. Just where can one go to find an alternate world, even a dystopia, in which to forget the troubles and trials of our own world for a little while?
1984 is a bestseller, but perhaps you’ve read or re-read it, and don’t want to delve the story of Winston Smith yet again. Perhaps you’ve also re-read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle and aren’t up for further Nazis vs. Imperial Japan action. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is always a solid choice, but perhaps you’ve already re-read that one, too. Maybe you want a dystopia of a different sort, a dystopia that gets less play, less attention than these familiar works—a world less visited. A world less seen, but no less dark than the usual array of dystopic alternate histories. But what to read instead?
Submitted for your approval: Kingsley Amis’s 1976 novel The Alteration.
The historical Points of Divergence for The Alteration go back to the 16th century, and the turbulent political and social changes following the invention of the printing press. In our timeline, Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses posted to a church door led to the Protestant Reformation, by way of terrible conflicts that plunged Europe into religious and political wars that devastated the continent. In Amis’ world, Luther never breaks from the church, and in fact he becomes Pope, bringing his anti-Semitic views with him into the office. On the political front, Arthur Tudor, son of Henry VII of England, manages to survive (a twist that Anne Lyle also plays with in her Night’s Masque alternate fantasy history novels). Arthur’s survival leads to a son, a civil war between that son and Henry of York (Henry VIII in our world), and a resulting England that remains staunchly Catholic.
The actual story of The Alteration focuses on Hubert Avril. In the year of our Lord 1976 he is ten years old, and has the most beautiful singing voice at St. George’s Basilica, the greatest church in Christendom. Such a gift is rare and beautiful and there are those who would preserve that singing voice by making sure that it does not change—by castrating him, whether he wants it or not. But Hubert himself does not know what he wants. Thus Amis’ title refers both to the alteration that Avril may or may not undergo, as well as to the dark history that we have slid into simply by opening the novel. Avril’s story, and his struggles to escape or come to terms with his fate is the personal narrative that Amis uses to explore his world, his dark version of history. Amis uses Hubert’s point of view as the ground-level exploration of a life within this alternate version of human events, and uses other points of view to give a 30,000 foot perspective on the dark world that he has created for Hubert to inhabit.
That world—that dark history that wasn’t—is, for me, really where one can sink into its comfortable, placid and serene totalitarian state and realize that things really could be worse. In the world of the Alteration, science is a dirty word, and technology is suppressed and repressed, firmly and uncompromisingly. Just as in our current age of alternative facts, there are plenty of alternate facts on display in Amis’ world. Electricity has been discovered, but is strongly held back, to the point that complicated workarounds and doublethinking about what it is and how it occurs are necessary for the primitive quasi-steampunk vehicles of the setting to work. Even celestial observations and astronomy are performed with a strange kind of doublethink, using a heliocentric solar system only as a mathematical fiction. Unlike the gentle push away from technology by its faerie agents of change in Keith Roberts’ Pavane, here, the Catholic church holds back progress in many fields with far less benevolent intentions.
The politics of The Alteration reflect its arrested scientific development, too, keeping the world in a kind of 17th-century deep freeze. The united Catholic West has a permanent enmity with the Turks, in a slowly simmering conflict always waiting to become hot. In this way, Amis marries the Cold War between the West and Russia with a strong anti-Islamic theme. Long before Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Amis imagined a Catholic Christian-Turkish Islamic cold war that the Catholic Church can use to justify doing some very dark things to the populace. For all of the outward placidness of this brutally repressive world, there are too many mouths to feed, and the Papacy has a plan that Snowpiercer’s Minister Wilford would understand and approve of.
The style of writing is one of densely-packed details and information, and the necessity of unpacking Amis’ work means that attempting a too-quick read can mean that some of the details are lost. In brief mentions and long sentences, Amis points to places near and far, to alternate versions of people who exist in our reality, and these connections help paint a fuller picture of the world of The Alteration. Amis has so clearly seen and imagined his alternate world that he is eager to offer it to his reader, and the the novel was certainly written with a literate, informed reader in mind. In this day and age, having Google handy while reading this book is incredibly helpful, and most definitely something I wish I’d been able to access when I first read the novel in the mid 90s.I found that rereading the book now, with two decades more of learning, plus the ability to Google, unlocked even more of the novel’s rich alternate world for me.
One of the special joys in the novel, in clear appreciation of Philip K. Dick and with parallels to his work, is Amis’ mention and evocation of fake alternate novels and alternate history novels (called Time Romances), which are secretly and covertly read and shared within his dark world. To put the finest point on it, there is a novel in this universe by one Philip K. Dick called The Man in the High Castle. This novel is the Grasshopper Lies Heavy of Amis’ world, imagining that its English-Catholic world does not come about, thanks to a change in the past. But like the book within the book in Dick’s novel (the one that exists in our world), the change leads to a world that is similar to ours, but isn’t exactly ours. A version of Keith Roberts’ Pavane also exists in Amis’ world, and there is even an alternate Lord of the Rings. And Gulliver’s Travels? The hero of that story is “Saint Lemuel” in the version written in Amis’ world.
While it’s not likely or realistic that a timeline shift five centuries in the past would allow such Easter eggs to occur, these connections to our world signal directly to what Amis is doing in the novel. Underneath the story of a young choir-singer in a brutal world, Amis is pointing at our own world, and its faults, as the true story that he wants to tell. Written in 1976, this novel in which the West is in a nasty cold war with the Middle East and repression, authoritarianism, and anti-science views rule the day is ever more relevant today, in 2017. Amis wrote far more presciently than he could ever have imagined. The Alteration remains a dark, beautiful jewel, awaiting readers new and old to see our own world captured within its reflection.
Top image: detail from the cover of The Alteration, New York Review Books edition (2013)
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).