Skip to main content

The Alteration (SF) - Kingsley Amis ****

I've come back to this book after a couple of decades and it still holds up well as one of the two great alternative history books where there is no Reformation in Europe, leaving the Catholic church with a  stranglehold that limits the development of science, technology and society (the other, of course, is Keith Roberts' lyrical Pavane).

The central theme to The Alteration is whether a ten-year-old boy with a superb singing voice should be turned into a castrato to preserve that voice for life at significant cost for the boy - but Kingsley Amis has immense fun with many references to familiar people, books and events, seen in the different light of the tightly Catholic Europe. The strange mix of Tudor and 1970s is done beautifully and atmospherically, as are the many differences between their world and ours (though it's never properly explained why Cowley, now known as Coverley, is the capital, rather than London). There are Protestants in this world - but they are mostly limited to New England, which despite being arguably better than Europe has its own problems.

Altogether a rich and delightful book with enough varied topics (the passage of child to adult, for instance, and the nature of being 'gifted' as well as the obvious social and religious themes) to engage anyone. I do have two issues. The minor one is that it is written in a language that is modern, but with a period feel to deepen that Tudor/1970s mix - which is fine, but distances the reader a little. The rather bigger one is the major plot twist in the final segment of the book - I won't give it away, but this is a twist that will not only have a fair number of readers wincing, but that is so improbable in the context that it makes the ending seem contrived. I understand what Amis is doing here, but he should have found a different way to do it.

Despite that, though, this is a great example of that wonderful mix of science fiction and historical fiction that is an alternative history, and well worth a try.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under