The Alteration

1501-1529

A subgenre of science fiction is “alternative history.” What would the world be like if history had taken another path? If the Axis powers had won the Second World War (as in Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, among many others)? If the South had won the American Civil War? If King Oswy of Northumbria had decided differently at the fateful Synod of Whitby? Or (going waaay back) if the Chicxulub asteroid had missed Earth, or the Cambrian had turned out differently?

Or suppose the Protestant Reformation had never happened? That’s the premise of several novels, including The Alteration by Kingsley Amis. Amis’s novel is set in an alternative 1976, in which Martin Luther long ago became Pope Germanicus, and the Catholic Church dominates most of the world, apart from the Turkish Empire, and some freethinkers in New England. The world is a dystopian theocracy, with a rigid caste system, where “science” is a dirty word. Amis has fun fitting characters from our own timeline into his alternative history. Himmler and Beria are Monsignors from Almaigne and Muscovy. Sartre is a renowned Jesuit theologian. Mozart lived a long life, and wrote a Second Requiem, in memory of a gifted composer, Beethoven, who died too young to accomplish much.

The main figure in the novel is an English boy, Hubert Anvil. Hubert is a fan of banned underground science fiction books, like the alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick, about an alternative world – not quite our own – in which the Protestant Reformation actually happened. In that alternative world within Hubert’s alternative world,

Invention has been set free a long time before. Sickness is almost conquered: nobody dies of consumption or the plague. … The inventors are actually called scientists, and they use electricity. … They send messages all over the Earth with it. They use it to light whole cities and even to keep folk warm. There are electric flying machines that move at two hundred miles an hour. [And] there’s a famous book which proves that mankind is descended from a thing like an ape, not from Adam and Eve.

But Hubert also has an angelic boy’s soprano voice, which he will lose in a few years at puberty, unless … Hence the sinister double meaning of the title, The Alteration.

Amis is both a very talented writer, and a science fiction fan, and the book is well worth reading. The latest edition has an introduction by science fiction writer William Gibson.

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