Like Keith Roberts's "Pavane", "The Alteration" is an alternate history novel in which the Reformation was defeated and Europe in the second half of the twentieth century remains under the control of an all-controlling Roman Catholic Church. (Kingsley Amis makes a playful reference to Roberts's book, acknowledging that it served as his inspiration). As in Roberts's novel, the Church has not only imposed a quasi-totalitarian theocratic dictatorship but has also, being extremely suspicious of science in all its forms, acted as a brake on technological progress; there are, for example, no aircraft apart from airships. (Amis is not always consistent on this point, however; we learn that there are railway trains capable of travelling from London to Rome in just seven hours, via a Channel Bridge).
Roberts imagined what would have happened if Elizabeth I had been assassinated and the Spanish Armada had been victorious. Amis's point of divergence takes place several decades earlier. In his parallel universe Prince Arthur, the elder son of Henry VII, survived long enough to become King and to father a son by Catherine of Aragon. Upon Arthur's death his younger brother Henry the Abominable (our timeline's Henry VIII) usurped his nephew's crown, whereupon Pope Germanian I (our timeline's Martin Luther) announced a crusade to restore the rightful heir to the throne.
The word "alteration" in the title has a double meaning. On the one hand it refers to the way in which Amis himself has altered history, producing a world which has certain resemblances to our own, yet in many ways is very different. On the other hand it is, in his alternative England, a euphemism for castration, the fate with which the main character, Hubert Anvil, is threatened.
The story is set in the year 1976 (the year the novel was published). Hubert is a ten-year-old chorister at St George's Basilica, Coverley. (Coverley, also known as Cowley near Oxford, is the place where the Pope's forces defeated those of Henry the Abominable and has been made the ecclesiastical capital of England in place of Canterbury). Hubert has a particularly fine voice, and the Church hierarchy, including the Pope himself, have decided that he should be "altered" so that he may sing as a soprano in the choir of St Peter's, Rome, and in this quasi-totalitarian society, what the Pope wants, the Pope generally gets.
There is, however, one possible way out. In Robert's universe, the Catholic Church dominated the entire Christian world. In Amis's, Catholicism prevails throughout Europe, including Russia. (What happened to the Orthodox Church is never explained). Protestantism has, however, survived in one corner of the globe, the "Republic of New England", roughly speaking the Eastern seaboard of North America, which for four centuries has functioned as a sanctuary for religious dissidents. Hubert takes refuge in the New Englander embassy, where the liberal ambassador makes plans to assist his escape.
Despite the similarities between Amis's imagined world and Roberts's, the two books are very different in tone, "Pavane" being poetic and philosophical, at times almost mystical, whereas "The Alteration" is sharply satirical. Unlike Roberts, Amis ponders upon how famous individuals from history and from his own day might have fared in his altered world. We learn, for example, that Shakespeare narrowly avoided being burned at the stake and was exiled to New England. Heinrich Himmler and Lavrenty Beria both became Cardinals and high-ranking officers of the Holy Office, as the Inquisition is now known.
This last detail gives a clue to Amis's satirical intentions. Originally on the Left (he was briefly a member of the Communist Party), he later moved sharply to the Right, and by the seventies was one of the most politically conservative figures in the British literary establishment. He was also an atheist who distrusted organised religion. "The Alteration" is therefore a double satire aimed both at socialism and at Christianity, especially Catholicism. There is also an element of anti-Americanism in that the Republic of New England, which represents our timeline's USA, is a state founded on liberal ideals but which has nevertheless managed to enact some repressive laws. (Native Americans are subject to apartheid-style racial discrimination, and although the New Englanders are horrified by the idea of "altering" young boys we learn that they reserve castration as a judicial punishment for fornicators and homosexuals).
Whatever the failings of New Englander secular politics, however, Amis presents their Protestant clergy in a more positive light than their Catholic counterparts, who not only are corrupt and oppressive but also frequently lack any real belief in the religion they cynically use to justify their own power. A number of Church officials are named after left-wing thinkers or politicians. We learn, for example, that the leftist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is in this world a Jesuit. The head of the Holy Office in England is named Lord Stansgate (the title disclaimed by Tony Benn), and we meet two officers of that organisation named Foot (as in Michael) and Redgrave (as in the left-wing acting dynasty). The Pope, John XXIV, portrayed as murderously ruthless and Machiavellian beneath an outward show of avuncularity, is a Yorkshireman; some have seen him as a disguised portrait of the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The implication is that, had it not been for the Reformation which broke its monopoly on European thought, Catholicism could have developed into a totalitarian system akin to the Communism which Amis (in common with a number of other former Communists) had come to regard as the greatest threat to liberty in the late twentieth century. The fate which threatens Hubert is symbolic of the doom which has befallen European civilisation, metaphorically castrated by a despotic Church. Although the story is set in an alternative world it has its implications for our own timeline; Amis has some sharp criticisms of Catholic doctrines such as priestly celibacy and the ban on contraception. Another theme raised by the book is the question of whether art, however technically accomplished it may be, has any value if it has been produced to the greater glory of a tyrannical regime.
The book's main weakness is that, whereas some of the minor characters, such as the Pope or Hubert's cynical schoolmate Decuman, are vividly drawn, the main character remains a mere cipher. Hubert never comes to life as an individual, and moreover always seems too mature for his supposed age, more like a teenager than a ten-year-old. Its main strength is the skill with which Amis conjures up his alternative world and uses it to comment satirically on our own. "The Alteration" contains much to interest even those who do not share Amis's political and theological positions.