Alteration, The by Amis, Kingsley, 1976

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Good science fiction is not hard to find. There is a community of readers out there whose collective experience generally help me weed through all the available crud, so I can identify and acquire decent literature. But over the years I have noticed that there are some books that simply fall through the cracks and get no notice. One of them, for me, is P.D. James' Children of Men. Prior to the movie I had never heard of it. Its not even listed in the Clute & Nichols Encyclopedia! But another book I have always loved and sung the virtues of, to practically deaf ears, I might add, is Kingsley Amis' 1976 masterpiece alternate history The Alteration. The themes explored include the inevitability of fate, the pointless struggle of the individual against society and its powerful institutions, faith in God and His greater plan, love and sexual longings viewed through the eyes of a child, and testicular health.

The Alteration is altered history story. The critical point of departure from Amis' world and ours was the Reformation. As in, it never happened. Martin Luther was convinced by the papacy to go to Rome in 1535, where instead of being beheaded, as he feared, he was made into the Pope. In this novel, set in 1976, the influence of Catholicism reaches from Spain to China, save for Russia who I assume are Catholic, just not of the Roman flavor, and the Turkish lands where there is an Islamic supremacy. The story concerns a young 10 year old boy named Hubert Anvil who is not only a master musician and composer, but more importantly is probably the best singer in Christendom. Word of his singing skills reaches Rome, which dispatched two aged German castrate, Viaventosa and Mirabilis, to evaluate the boy for inclusion in their ranks. Mirabilis and Viaventosa made up their mind quite quickly, and had no difficulty convincing Hubert's father who thought naught of the what the boy would lose, but seemed to relish the thought of what the alteration would mean for his reputation. Hubert had mixed feelings about the whole suggestion, and his mother was dead set against it. Unfortunately for Hubert, in this world women and children both were a half-step above chattels.

With such a touchy topic as the power of the church over the body of the individual Amis deftly managed to stay away from the pejorative and kept the focus on the characters. He never really let things slide down to a point where the integrity of the church is questioned. At least too much, that is. The book is divided into six chapters, but there really are three distinct parts. In the first the alteration was proposed and evaluated for its merits and its flaws. In the plus column, Hubert would become one of the most professionally respected individuals in the world, he stood to become be rich beyond his dreams, and his gifts would be viewed as some of the best and most important that anyone ever offered to God. On the other hand, after the alteration Hubert could never become a man, would never experience physical love (and wouldn't never even really miss it, since he was to be altered before puberty), and would likely be subjected to personal ridicule for his boyish traits.

The second part of the book is spent inside Hubert's mind as he tried to comprehend his potential loss. Simply put, and with a full understanding that this is going to sound like nonsense, its as confusing as it is enlightening. Amis really does destroy the old adage that you can't explain sex to a ten year old. In the end the boy's gap of understanding was even wider than when he first started thinking about his fate, but the tender way that the boy contemplated his loss and the intense and misunderstood longing that he already felt for his soon-to-be-lost manhood forcefully drive home his comprehension of how different he will be. What really pushes this point home is the notion that as a master composer, the alteration is not even necessary. Hubert can provide glory to God in that way, and can remain a normal boy. And in forcing the boy to undergo the surgery really is the only place that the church takes it on the nose in this book.

Of course the social value of young castrati has plunged deeply in the centuries since the practice was first put into place, but there was a time when young men who undertook the procedure were venerated. Regarless of the flinch that modern people may give to the practice, Amis did a remarkable job of transporting the reader mentally to a placde where the social and indiviudal benefits of such a barbaric practice could be seen and appreciated.

The third part of the book was a daring escape attempt that ran into problem after problem, including the murder of Hubert's father's house priest (he's rich enough to afford that particular luxury), a kidnapping attempt that went awry, a run for asylum in the embassy of New England (the only protestant nation in the world), which is capped off by the incredibly ironic "twist" of fate that befalls Hubert as he is getting ready to make his escape on a fast dirigible to North America.

One very interesting attribute of this novel was the way Amis weaved various cultural artifacts and people into his story. All authors who write in this sub-genre do this to some degree or another, to add a bit of realism to the story and to anchor the differences in the reader's mind. But Amis managed a pretty high level, and unlike lesser authors, never became annonying. His constant reference to "TR" or "Time Romance," as a derivative of H.G. Wells' "SR" or "Scientific Romance" as that world's stand in for SF is pretty interesting. He even offers a few passages from that changed world's version of The Man in the High Castle, and posits a series of novels by his friend, Ian Fleming, called the Father Bond series of spy novels. The references in this book are quite numerous and all easily understandable, and really add quite a bit to it.

Despite the linguistic differences between contemporary American English and British English and the few difficulties I had with some of them, I think that Amis' prose is top notch. As I mentioned before, the voice Amis tells this story from makes some of the passages and idioms virtually indecipherable to a Yank such as myself. And the second reading of this book is likely to be more informative than your first for that reason alone. But Amis is a true master of the written word, and even if you have an issue the slang as I do, that fact is never lost. Here's an example I particuarly like. It occurs in the book when Lyall, the live-in family priest, is confronted by the secular English police. He is required to sign off on the alteration by requirement of the Pope, and has refused to do so. His reasons are mostly selfish: He is sexually active himself, and with Hubert's mother who seems to be using her sex to push him to stop the process. He is keenly aware of what the boy is to lose, and is confused by his seemingly misplaced love for Dame Anvil. The police were sent there to help him change his mind, and may even be the two that kill Lyall later in the book by cutting off his genitals. One of the officers has just threatened to put Lyall into "The Tower," presumably some prison:

Lyall had not even reached the point of dismissing this threat as idle: He simply disregarded it. "Fuck a fox, the pair of you," he said without warmth. "You're mean of spirit--none who was not would lower himself to do your tasks, even so slight a one as this present errand. You're false, claiming to serve a just and merciful God and at the same time proud to wear the color of blood on your dress. And you're dull and dismal, you're enemies of all wit. Hope at best to be laughed at, officers, with our pretty armlets like some gewgaw from a boy's motley-box. Now take yourselves back to your beloved Tower and leave me to my work!

Another occurs a little earlier in the book. Hubert and his father have just had an audience with Mirabilis and Viaventosa. Hubert's father was disgusted by the corpulence of Viaventosa, and is reminded of a rumor that alteration frequently has this effect on one's body. He contemplates how he will feel if Hubert becomes that fat. At the end of the audience Viaventosa had a crisis of conscience and tried to convince the boy's father not to allow the alteration; he told Hubert's papa that Hubert will be ridiculed and taunted for life if it happens. Viaventosa became very emotional so Hubert was rushed out of the office by his father, himself overcome with emotion. His father stopped him on the street and addressed Hubert after they were outside. Practically in tears Hubert's father spoke directly to him, perhaps for the first time in Hubert's life. Hubert thought that the tears were for him - as a lamentation. Hubert's father was normally very stoic, and he really had never embraced or comforted Hubert before:

The green-leather door slammed. Hubert saw that there was more in his father's expression than embarrassment or revulsion. He was about to ask him not to hold his hand so tightly when something amazing happened: In a yard outside a house in Rome, while hundreds of people passed by and others in ones and twos stopped to watch, Master Tobias Anvil of the London Chamber of Merchandry knelt down on the cobbles in his thirty shilling breeches and clasped his son in his arms.

"What is it, papa?"

"God aid me, God send my soul tranquility. Pray for me, Hubert. Pray to Christ to take from my memory what I have seen and heard."

"Yes papa. It was rather displeasing."

Tobias's embrace grew tighter. "Oh Christ, I pray Thee to take away from this child, my child, that sight and those words. Oh Hubert, how should I bear it that you should become such a creature as that?"

"He's old, papa, and he's silly, and he was piling it up--surely you could see--, and he'd most likely have looked the same whether he'd been altered or not, or much the same. The other was very different, not only in his looks."

Releasing his son, Tobias sat back on his heels. He made no move to stand up, heedless or even unaware of the small talkative crowd that had gathered a few yards off. he seemed calmer when he said, "What can ever make me able to drive that voice from my ears? I must find a priest tonight to pray with me. Oh God, where am I now to find the strength to endure what will be done to this child of mine?"

"Will be done?"

"Because endure it I must."

Hubert looked down at the top of his father's bowed head.

At the moment that I read that it also hit me that this book was about how parents sometimes load too many of their own dreams on their young children's sholders. This is another book that I cannot recommend enough to you all. Its subtle, powerful and moving, it picks up the pace before it ends, and it really does a thorough job with its subject matter. If you enjoy this, you will probably also enjoy Amis' dystopian piece Russian Hide & Seek, about a UK overrun by the Soviets. Id recommend also New Maps of Hell, which is a series of lectures Amis delivered at Princeton in the late 50's about dystopian SF literature. Amis also seems to have had ties to Ian Flemming, but I have never been able to tell if they were just friends, or if Amis has written any 007 stories.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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