Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis

More alternate history!  This one's got more Catholics and fewer testicles.

It's set in 1976 and the Pope's in pretty much complete control of the world, aside from some pesky New Englanders and Mohametans.  The Reformation never happened.  Catherine of Aragon dutifully produced a boy for Henry VIII and Martin Luther became Pope Germania I.  There's a Pax Romana across Europe and beyond: no world wars, no nazis, no communists.  And no electricity.

The technology I loved in this book, and that wasn't something I was expecting from a more literary writer like Amis.  Diesel is king.  Petrol engines never caught up, because they use sparkplugs, and electricity is considered pretty suspect by the church.  But the industrial revolution still appears to be in full steam, so to speak.   All railways lead to Rome, and there's a direct link from London, over the channel, over the top of the Alps and down through the Papal States.  And the Yanks at least have airships, so you know for sure this is early steampunk.

Another aspect of this book works wonderfully - historical figures from our world exist here, but in very different aspects.  At the start we meet two cardinals of the "Holy Office" (Inquisition) named Beria and Himler.  Edgar Allan Poe was a great New Englander general, and had one of those airships named after him.  There's a well respected French Jesuit theologian called Jean Paul Sartre.  And two church heavies loom up half way through, called Foot and Redgrave - who in another reality would be well known left wing firebrands of the day.  I'm sure there are plenty more references I've missed.

The plot's about a young boy with the voice of an angel, and of course the authorities would like that voice to remain untouched for the greater glory of God.  By taking his knackers.  The boy Hubert is well portrayed and convincing, and the story really works.  It has a clear narrative drive, we learn a lot about the world, and it explores sexuality, art, power and rebellion without anything seeming forced.  I wasn't totally sure about a twist (literally) towards the end, but it didn't harm the book for me.

It hardly paints a rosy picture of the Church, but I saw this more of a satire on human nature and totalitarianism rather than Catholicism.  Any belief or political system, when unopposed, will tend to brutality and horror.  That's why Amis shows people like Himler and Beria flourishing.  When your system is in complete control, it doesn't really matter if you're a Nazi, a Bolshevik or a Cardinal.  In the end, you're just another thug.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Wake Up and Dream by Ian R Macleod

A shabby private eye gets mixed up with femmes fatales, dodgy doctors, sinister politicians and a buried secret in 1940s Hollywood.  Except this time round the detective is called Clark Gable - a failed actor from the almost forgotten era of the talkies, before the feelies changed everything.

This is a noir in a world with one big change from ours: the invention of a device which records emotions and auras, and can play them back to an audience.  It's supposed to have been introduced just a few years after the silent era came to an end, and like the earlier revolution it left a lot of one time stars on the scrapheap.  Humphrey Bogart makes a brief appearance as a boat captain for tourists, and the actress who ushered in the new era (the Al Jolson of the feelies) is Peg Entwistle.  I thought I recognised her name - in the real world she found fame by throwing herself from the top of the Hollywoodland sign.  I really liked these little touches.

It's also really successful in conjuring up a feeling of dread.  America's on the brink of full blown facism - the jews have been run out of the movie business and Klan feelies are the new big thing.  But what's really scary is the potential of feelies.  It's not really the movies - it's the adverts beforehand which give you a nasty taste of the future in this world.  Joy, lust, pride, hatred can be pumped directly into the brain.  It's already been shipped out to the Nazis to boost their rallies.  There's a real sense that this is describing the beginning of something amazing and horrible.

The plot starts out as a very nice mixture of Chandler and Philip K. Dick, although it sort of falls apart towards the end.  The one big mistake (minor spoiler) is going down the movie monster route towards the end.  If it wanted to capitalise on that dread, it could've gone all Videodrome for instance, rather than the end of Ang Lee's Hulk.

Pretty damn good otherwise, with big ideas carried through convincingly, though I should admit I only read it because I thought it was by Ken Macleod - he of the singularities and space communists.  And yet I probably enjoyed this more.

UPDATE: the only cover art I found for this book was pretty horrible because I think it's only available as an ebook, so I've replaced it with a nice picture of Clark Gable from a happier reality.