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.


zungg said...

This sounds excellent, straight to the top of my list. Surprised I've never heard of it before.

Joe said...

It's a really nicely set up world, and Amis clearly has a lot of respect for the genre: some of the characters are reading Philip K Dick's the Man in the High Castle - this world's version of it.

A correction to my review - Catherine of Aragon has a son with her first husband Arthur, Henry's older brother. I've also found out that the Pope is meant to be Harold Wilson!