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When you come across the name Kingsley Amis 1922 95 you don t expect to find it associated with science fiction A novelist, poet, and literary critic, Amis is probably best known for his first published novel, Lucky Jim, which appeared in 1954 The book won a major literary award and is frequently included on reading lists in English literature classes His much later novel, The Alteration, published in 1976, is far less likely to be recommended reading for college students But it has somehow captivated William Gibson, one of our era s leading lights in science fiction And, reading it, I can understand why.
In his introduction to the 2013 reprint edition of the novel as a New York Review of books Classic, Gibson refers to it as one of the finest, most rigorously executed of all parallel world novels Someone like myself who s less familiar with literary jargon is likely instead to term it an example of alternate history, which indeed makes sense to me An alternate history of the Church, to be precise.
An alternate history of the churchAmis s tale is set in 1976, the year of its publication But the roots of the story lie in the early sixteenth century In 1517, priest and theologian Martin Luther famously kicked off the Protestant Reformation, triggering centuries of often bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants But in The Alteration, Luther instead has cut a deal with the Vatican and become Pope Martin I The consequences that flow from that accommodation are dramatic.
Science is a dirty wordUndeterred by civil strife, the Church has mustered the strength to suppress the scientific revolution and thus the Enlightenment Science is a dirty word in the world of this novel.
The Pope is the world s most powerful personEngland has remained Catholic, and its vast empire continues to heed the word of the Vatican Only in the Republic of New England, where English Schismatics have congregated, has a spirit of innovation taken hold Yet they all ultimately must answer to the Pope, the world s most powerful person.
An endless holy war between Rome and the TurksRome is perpetually engaged in a Holy War with the Turks over territory in the Balkans.
London houses just one millionUrbanization has been limited by the pull of tradition throughout the countryside For example, London is a city of little than one million people as opposed to the 7.
5 million who lived there in the 1970s A world lit only by fire Yet the world of 1976 in The Alteration is a world lit only by fire, to steal a phrase from William Manchester s magnificent 1992 study of medieval Europe and the Renaissance And horse drawn vehicles are still common on the streets and roads along with diesel powered trucks, taxis, and express omnibuses Trains railtrack trains connect the cities.
Is ten year old Hubert to be altered The protagonist of The Alteration is ten year old Hubert Anvil, the star soprano of the choir at a Benedictine monastery in England Hubert s fame is so great that the director of the Sistine Choir has come to hear him sing And Hubert now becomes the subject of intense interest from the Abbott to the boy s parents and the Pope The question is whether he is to be altered, that is, to be subjected to surgery that will castrate him to preserve his voice forever And Amis adroitly builds suspense as the contending forces jockey for advantage The Alteration is a deeply satisfying excursion into a past that might have been It s an alternate history of the Church, but it s also a touching story of a young boy s life in a dystopian tyranny.
Alternative history or dystopian fiction can be quite tedious as it conjures of the most negative forecasts that rarely if even are supportable but the trap of what seems plausible draws in the reader Kingsley Amis does all that but by picking a jump off something as momentous as Luther s role in the Protestant Reformation he s able to take 450 years of history since then to play with scenarios and outcomes.
I can argue all day that the reformation would have happened in some form anyway or that the Catholic Church is not nearly the evil state portrayed here and I hardly give Philip Dick credit for raving about a book that puts him on a pedestal.
But this is entertainment and it s provocative I enjoyed the book and I am moved to better understand the history For that I give the book a full 5 stars The Alteration itself is a vehicle to expose Amis s views on church and what he sees as its insidious power that drives it to despotism in a desperate drive to control and its fear of those outside its control.
All creative, interesting and well worth it for those who enjoy the genre.