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Just Gonna Have To Be A Different Man

The Alteration

By Kingsley Amis 

13 Jan, 2022

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Kingsley Amis’ 1976 The Alterationis a stand-alone alternate history novel. 

King Stephen III of England, is dead! Long live King William V, whose reign begins in the Year of Our Lord 1976. Gathered for Steven III’s funeral: many of Europe’s most prestigious figures. It will be a grand occasion. 

Young Hubert Anvil is to sing at the funeral. This is a great honour, but it leads to a demand that he does not want to accept but doesn’t see how to refuse.

But first, some words about the Reformation: it failed. Luther was convinced to remain a Catholic, Henry Tudor is infamous only as the man who tried to steal his nephew’s throne, and the Church holds sway over all Europe up to the borders of its Ottoman rival. Only in the breakaway colonies of North America is there anything like Protestantism. Technology lags a lifetime behind 1976 as we know it.

Hubert’s performance at the funeral triggers a heated discussion. His voice is remarkable, surely a gift from God. What a shame it would be if puberty stole this gift from the world! Hubert should be castrated to preserve his voice from the ravages of adolescence.

The Church has both carrot and stick. If Hubert cooperates, he will be famous and wealthy. If he refuses … well, the Church’s arm is very long, as is its memory. Nowhere in Europe is Hubert likely to find refuge. 

On the other hand, there are those breakaway colonies in the New World….


Some readers may be surprised that Amis’ Catholic-dominated world is so backward, as were the Catholic-dominated worlds of Eisenstein’s Shadow of Earth, and Roberts’ Pavane. Still, consider what a backward place Renaissance Italy was, compared to such hotbeds of technological progress as the Denmark or Scotland of the time. Surely, had the Church retained its control of Europe, all of the continent would have been as backward compared to our world as the Italy of da Vinci and Michelangelo was to the Europe of their day. 

While this isn’t quite how would the survival of the dinosaurs have impacted Richard Nixon’s re-election chances?,” this novel hews to the rule that no matter how long ago the historical alteration occurred, famous people still appear on schedule. Thus, despite the significant implications for Germany of no Reformation, Himmler is still climbing his way up the greasy pole. Elsewhere, familiar names abound. Kipling was First Citizen, while Poe and Whistler enjoyed military careers. Presumably only space prevented Amis from mentioning Nixon’s used diesel automobile dealership. 

Amis draws on literary traditions other than stock SFnal tropes. Rather than offering a straightforward adventure tale of a boy trying to escape to what we would call America, the novel focuses on its setting in an alternate timeline England. There are a host of characters, each with their own agendas, all constrained by their circumstances. 

That said, The Alteration is not an example of a literary author reinventing the wheel of a genre they cannot stoop to sample personally. Amis is quite familiar with SF, no surprise from the author of 1960’s New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960). His knowledge of SF is made clear with allusions within the text, to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, for example. He does not limit himself to genre conventions, but builds on them by drawing on sources outside SF. 

There’s room in such experiments for spectacular failure. In this case, however, Amis’ effort is successful, as one might guess from the fact that it won the 1977 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel. Amis was denied a Sidewise Award win by through a mere technicality, that being that the Sidewise Award would not be created until the mid-1990s. I note that there is still time to give The Alteration a Sidewise for Special Achievement in Alternate History…

The Alteration is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo, for values of here equal to listed but cannot be ordered”).