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The Alteration

The Alteration

by Kingsley Amis, introduction by William Gibson

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In Kingsley Amis’s virtuoso foray into virtual history it is 1976 but the modern world is a medieval relic, frozen in intellectual and spiritual time ever since Martin Luther was promoted to pope back in the sixteenth century. Stephen the Third, the king of England, has just died, and Mass (Mozart’s second requiem) is about to be sung to lay him to rest. In the choir is our hero, Hubert Anvil, an extremely ordinary ten-year-old boy with a faultless voice. In the audience is a select group of experts whose job is to determine whether that faultless voice should be preserved by performing a certain operation. Art, after all, is worth any sacrifice.

How Hubert realizes what lies in store for him and how he deals with the whirlpool of piety, menace, terror, and passion that he soon finds himself in are the subject of a classic piece of counterfactual fiction equal to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

The Alteration won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science-fiction novel in 1976.

kingsley amis

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781590176177
Pages: 256
Publication Date:


I’m convinced. . . that The Alteration. . . deserves to endure. It succeeds not only as a wildly imaginative, vastly entertaining, fictional dystopia, but as an acute exploration of the emotional dynamics behind cultural, political or religious faith. . . . For all its witty arabesques, Amis’s counterfactual schema has an underlying coherence and consistency. We see how faith-led social control seeks to dominate lives and minds — and why it may falter.
—Boyd Tonkin, UnHerd

Buoyantly inventive from its ground-plan to its remotest pinnacles and twirly bits, Kingsley Amis's new novel has almost nothing expectable about it, except that it is a study of tyranny.
—John Carey, New Statesman

One of the best—possibly the best—alternate-worlds novels in existence.
—Philip K. Dick

A masterpiece of its kind.
—William Gibson, The New York Times

The Green Man and The Alteration will retain their important places in the history of supernatural fiction and science fiction.
—Michael Dirda

In one of his funniest novels, The Alteration, Kingsley Amis imagined a counterfactual world in which the Reformation had failed. Martin Luther had not plunged northern Europe into religious revolt, but instead became Pope Germanicus I. Prince Arthur of England did not die, so his odious brother Henry never became king. Henry's malcontent Protestant followers, after an abortive rebellion, were banished to New England, where they eventually invented free trade, electricity and personal hygiene. So Europe in the 1960s groaned under a papistical Habsburg tyranny. Harold Wilson was pope, dispensing tea in the Vatican ("Shall we be mother?"), and papal scouts combed English cathedrals for likely singing boys who, after suitable surgery ("The Alteration"), became castrati in the Sistine Chapel choir.
—Eamon Duffy, Sunday Times (UK)

Amis, not content with writing scholarly treatments of the subject, produced a historical/futurological novel, The Alteration . . . I might add that the subject of sex in this work is introduced in the most radical and subversive way, though without the smallest hint of the pornographic.
—Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly

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