The Alteration

by Kingsley Amis.Viking. $7.95. It is Mr. Amis’s conceit that the Protestant Reformation fizzled out with Martin Luther elected pope and Henry VIII never reaching the throne. Consequently, in the Year of Our Lord 1976, England is part of a monolithically Catholic Europe, threatened only by the paynim Turk (who as usual has a hopeful eye on Vienna) and no more than annoyed by some independent heretics across the North Atlantic. Society is viciously caste-ridden and antiscientific, with all civil government subordinate to the authority of a priesthood which may be described, with great charity, as worldly.
Costume appears to have got stuck in the eighteenth century and mechanical development in the early nineteenth, although bridge building has flourished. The outrageous New Englanders are known to be fooling with that dangerous substance electricity, and have definitely produced an airship. Now this sort of pretense, no matter how ingeniously worked out (and Mr. Amis is highly ingenious), needs a plot to keep it going.
The plot concerns a boy soprano with remarkable promise as a composer. The church authorities, interested in liturgical performance and quite satisfied with Bach and Mozart, propose castration to preserve the child’s exquisite voice. The boy and his saner relatives object. Nasty violence ensues and leads to a sour, ironic conclusion.
The grim story never blends smoothly
with the fanciful setting; on the contrary, they fight for precedence all the way and leave the reader wondering about the point of the whole exercise. As an attack on corrupt, tyrannical government it seems needlessly oblique, while as anticlericalism it comes some centuries late.