Apr 24 2013 4:00pm

A Most Admirably Foul Counterfeit World: The Alteration by Kingsley Amis

Review The Alteration Kingsley AmisIt’s 1976, and the rule of the Roman Catholic Church is absolute. A stable theocracy prevails across Europe. The Reformation never happened. A papal crusade prevented Henry VIII from taking the throne. Martin Luther became Pope Germanian I. The Church is in charge of all aspects of life, from government and culture all the way down to personal relationships.

Ten year old Hubert Anvil is an incredibly gifted soprano, but as puberty approaches, his voice will break, inevitably destroying his ability to sing in the higher registers. Hubert’s superiors are considering an “alteration”: removing the offending parts of his anatomy before hormones ravage his angelical voice….

The Alteration is a 1976 alternate history novel by English novelist, poet and critic Kingsley Amis. It won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel. This new edition, out on May 7th from NYRB Classics, also features an insightful new introduction by William Gibson.

The world portrayed in The Alteration by Kingsley Amis is a meticulously constructed and plausible dystopia that accounts in large part for the fascination this novel still holds. The Catholic Church has controlled life for so long and in such a complete way that most characters take it more or less for granted. The novel’s title is very effective in the way it implies multiple meanings: not just Hubert’s proposed castration, but also the larger alteration of history.

Amis mentions many of these historical changes in passing or simply implies them, which may make it tricky for readers who aren’t very familiar with (real) history to fully appreciate some of the many clever references. Just the first few pages contain a list of visiting dignitaries whose titles imply a completely different history of Europe (no unified Italy, for one) and vastly different roles for some historical figures (as evidenced by the last names of Monsignors Henricus and Lavrentius). You don’t have to be a historian to appreciate this novel, but as William Gibson indicates in his introduction, a basic familiarity with the concepts of the Reformation is probably helpful.

In the world of The Alteration, science has literally become a dirty word. Progress has more or less been stopped for a few centuries. Electricity is unknown after having been banned. As a result, vehicles run on Diesel engines (which don’t require an electrical spark for ignition) and intercontinental travel by steam train is common. At least in terms of technology, there’s something steampunk-like about this novel.

Another consequence of the Church’s opposition to scientific progress is that science fiction has become forbidden literature. There’s an underground circuit for people who enjoy TR, or Time Romance, as the genre is known in this reality. The most controversial of TR’s subgenres is dubbed CW, Counterfeit World, which imagines worlds and histories different from the one portrayed in the novel, such as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle—an alternate history that exists inside this alternate history and portrays a world in which the events that led up to the reality portrayed in The Alteration never happened. Other genre classics have been changed to fit into the Church’s proscribed worldview, such as Lord of the Chalices and The Wind in the Cloisters.

For me, The Alteration is at its best when it explores its setting and its premise by showing both subtle and overt changes to established history. Finding the references to real history is somehow both exhilarating (at least for history geeks like me) and utterly depressing (in all its implications). In terms of plot and characters, the novel is not the author’s best work, but like William Gibson in his introduction I’d rather not go into too much detail here, so you can approach the story without preconceived notions.

The Alteration is both an interesting take on alternate history and a broad indictment of the way religious dogmatism can impact people on the most personal, intimate level as well as on a society-wide scale. If you’re a fan of alternate history, definitely check out what Gibson calls this “most admirably foul counterfeit world.”

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.

1. dmatx
I'm excited a new edition is coming out! I've been searching for a (affordable) copy of this for years.
2. Raskos
Some of the alternates really were in-jokes for Amis's circle at the time; the contemporary pope, for instance, was modelled on Amis's friend John Brane, whom nobody today seems to remember.
3. Xena Catolica
This review does not suggest the work is more than a caricature of Catholicism. Characterization? Plot? Humor? Nothing you've presented here shows why it won a Campbell, or why someone who isn't knee-jerk hostile to Catholicism would want to read it. More on the literary merits would be more enticing, and perhaps more enlightening....
5. Raskos
Amis was a very funny writer when he was at the height of his powers, although the humour lay mainly in use of language and in the attitudes of his characters, which are generally well-drawn and mostly sympathetic, even when espousing positions that Amis might be expected to find repugnant. Not always, though; I think that Brane might have had a hard time forgiving Amis for his elevation to pope. But Amis's strengths as a writer don't rest upon this novel alone; he produced a number of very good, and well-received, mainstream novels from the early 50s to the early 90s, although he became very much a reactionary as he aged and there was a fair bit of controversy attending the publication of at least one of his books, in the 80s.
As to whether "someone who isn't knee-jerk hostile to Catholicism woud want to read it", well, the form of Protestantism which exists in this world gets a shellacking as well, while the Muslim world is simply seen as a collusional partner with Christendom, the two faiths dividing the world into spheres of influence and deliberately engaging in periodic world-war scale conflicts to bleed off population pressures. Amis didn't think much of any form of religion whatsoever.
As to his depiction of a Catholic Britain, well, it seemed a lot like what we read of Spain under the Bourbons, or pre-unification Italy, or most of Europe, actually, before the Reformation. He didn't have to look far for his model.
6. lucienspringer
Sounds very like Keith Roberts' Pavane.
7. Nick Duffy
There is a nod to Keith Roberts in it, so I think we can put it down as openly influenced rather than plagiarised.

Incidentally, I always presumed the Yorkshireman Pope was based on Harold Wilson. There are several references to other then-current Labour Party politicians as Vatican operatives (Michael Foot, Tony Benn).

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