Quieter Than 1984, but No Less Terrifying

Kingsley Amis’s 1976 alternate-history masterpiece The Alteration is an overlooked—but timely—novel about the dangers of authoritarianism.

A detail from the cover of the New York Review Books edition of Kingsley Amis's <em>The Alteration</em>
A detail from the cover of the New York Review Books edition of Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (New York Review Books)

Imagine a United States in which the president has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to scrub its website of climate-change content, his counselor and former campaign manager has deployed the phrase “alternative facts,” a list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants is drawn up weekly and posted, and an executive order targeting Muslim travelers was issued. A sci-fi novelist could do worse than recruit any one of these plot points into a gloomy novel of the future—except, of course, they’re not plot points.

In light of these recent developments, it doesn’t take much effort to glean why George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is suddenly selling at a newsworthy clip. The story posits a terrifying authoritarian society—but it’s likely you already know that, even if you haven’t read a page of it. It’s the one with Big Brother, the Thought Police, doublethink, newspeak, the Ministry of Truth. It’s certainly not the only novel about the dangers of authoritarianism, but it has a monopoly on all the best iconic figures and phrases. Ironically, Orwell’s 1949 classic itself has become a kind of tyrant, glowering like Big Brother from the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

However you feel about Nineteen Eighty-Four personally, there are plenty of other great speculative novels about authoritarianism, novels that are less iconic, but no less chilling. One in particular turned 40 this past fall to virtually no fanfare, while other books enjoyed a surge of interest. This lack of scrutiny was a shame because The Alteration, Kingsley Amis’s quirky 1976 foray into counterfactual science fiction, is a masterpiece—and more timely than ever. It posits a world in which truth is trussed up, and sexual identities are policed with horrifying consequences. But, unlike other, more aggressively grim dystopias, it’s otherwise a relatively pleasant world, whose horrors blink at readers from between the lines.

The first page of The Alteration puts down in a seemingly archaic England, specifically at “Cathedral Basilica of St. George of Coverley, the mother church of all England and of the English Empire overseas.” A king has died, other kings have assembled, and the protagonist Hubert Anvil, a young, prepubescent chorister, is delivering a transcendent performance. But it’s an odd configuration of kings in attendance, and soon other references start to nag. The cathedral contains frescoes by William Blake ... and a mosaic by one David Hockney. And then comes the twist, several pages in, as the massive cathedral disgorges its funeral procession: “In the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and seventy-six, Christendom would see nothing more mournful or more stately.”

That’s right: It’s 1976, and an alteration to history has, in fact, arrested history. The Protestant Reformation, it turns out, never took place. The Church of England never parted ways with the Pope, Catholicism dominates the Western world, and the Turks are branded as the enemy. (In this alternate reality, Martin Luther, the great papal critic, became Pope.) It’s supposed to be the year the Sex Pistols released “Anarchy in the U.K.,” but large portions of the planet are fixed in medieval deep freeze. Interestingly, there’s still something like a brash (if much diminished) New World, called “New England,” where there’s a “First Citizen” instead of a king. It’s a surreal setup, but then so was the episode of The Simpsons that imagined a reality star rising to the highest office.

The Alteration, then, is a counterfactual novel in the tradition of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. (Dick’s 1962 science-fiction classic, now reimagined an Amazon TV series, wonders what would have happened had the Nazis won World War II.) In fact, in a sly wink to Amis’s real-world readers, Hubert’s choir friends come into possession of a copy of The Man in the High Castle. Dick’s book, in the world of The Alteration, is an example of “CW”—or “Counterfeit World,” a literary subgenre of “Time Romance” (basically, science fiction). Such literature is illegal in Hubert’s world, and the youngsters duly marvel at their contraband. From it, they imagine an alternative world history that could very well have been theirs, one in which Martin Luther never becomes Pope, something called The Origin of Species sees its way into print, and New England eventually evolves into “the greatest Power in the world.” Here, then, is “fake history”—but unlike its mischief-making cousin “fake news,” fake history has the positive effect of opening minds muffled by oppression to unimagined social and political possibilities.

Amis’s seemingly benign title, The Alteration, however, has a second, terrible meaning: Hubert is himself to be “altered.” At the novel’s outset, church authorities resolve to turn the young chorister into a castrato, the better to embalm his otherworldly voice—and to refrigerate the adolescent in clean, bright, asexual youth. Traumatic surgery, here, is sheathed in the sort of opaque euphemism—see “alternative facts”—that politicians sometimes prefer, and that Orwell himself worried about in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

Hubert will attempt to flee his “alteration,” but plot is the least of the book’s pleasures. Most of the delight (and terror) comes from Amis’s wickedly clever world building. For example, as Hubert’s friends geek out over The Man in the High Castle (the way real-world fanboys might an installment of Star Wars) one of them pauses to balk at the idea of a brash English colony across the pond becoming a world power. “That mean little den of thieves and savages … ?” he says with disbelief. It’s a moment of black comedy, but in 2017 it’s also a painful reminder that the preeminence of the United States, far from a given, might one day seem like nothing more than preposterous sci-fi: the object of a fanboy’s scorn.

In another twist, Amis imagines a world that has largely suppressed science. Electricity has been discovered, but is disdained, the way many now disdain vaccines. Curiously, there are car- and train-like conveyances that propel people about Hubert’s otherwise lethargic world—but only because enterprising electricity-denialists have found complicated workarounds. It’s hard not to picture climate-change skeptics when reading passages like this:

[I]gnition was achieved merely by compressing petroleum vapour to a certain density, without the introduction of a spark. That suffix was vital, for the only practicable known means of producing a spark was an electrical one, and matters electrical were held in general disesteem. They were commonly regarded among the people as strange, fearful, even profane; the gentry smiled at the terms of this view while not missing its essential truth: electricity was appallingly dangerous, both as it existed and as it might be developed.

Crucially, unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are no scene-stealing villains in The Alteration—no Thought Police, no Ministries of Truth—to administer tyranny. Nor do telescreens loom overhead. There’s just a mundane, centuries-old consensus that corsets sexuality and chloroforms reason.

In his introduction to the New York Review Books Classics edition of The Alteration, William Gibson calls the book a “study in tyranny, as effective, and terrifying, albeit in its much quieter way, as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Quiet is the key, well-judged word here. Read between the lines of The Alteration and you find Western culture behind bars. Read too quickly and you’ll miss the submerged fact that geniuses like Willem de Kooning came to devote their canvasses to religious content, and that many literary classics never came to be. (Instead, Hubert’s bookshelf includes an alt-canon of bizarro doppelgangers like Lord of the Chalices and The Wind in the Cloister.) Even Shakespeare, identified only as the author of “If you prick us, do we not bleed,” was excommunicated and expelled from England. No other book dispenses such disastrous fates—noiselessly, behind the scenes—to the liberal heroes and artifacts it’s easy to take for granted. Free will has been garroted by rosary beads.

It’s easy to glide over many of these details. The Alteration requires readers to have a handle on history and be alert to allusions that Amis doesn’t especially underline. As a result, the book might not seem like obvious gear for the resistance (whereas Occupy Wall Street readily took up the mask preferred by the protagonist of Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta). Nevertheless, Amis’s experiment is an essential entry in a canon that includes V for Vendetta as well as other well-known fare like The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale. Dick himself suggests The Alteration might be the best “alternate-worlds” novel, period. Amis’s subtle, stylish sentences yield no slogans, no iconic images. But those anxious about encroaching tyranny will discover in its pages a grave new world.