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The Alteration
By Kingsley Amis

Discussed July 2021

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Dramatis Personae

  • Hubert Anvil, a very gifted English choirboy
  • Anthony Anvil, Hubert’s brother, a liberal dissident
  • Master Tobias Anvil, father of Hubert & Anthony, a prosperous merchant
  • Dame Margaret Anvil, wife of Tobias, mother of Hubert & Anthony
  • Decuman, a friend and schoolmate of Hubert
  • Pope John XXIV (Harold Wilson)
  • Federicus Mirabilis (Fritz Wunderlich) and Lupigradus Viaventosa (Wolfgang Windgassen), a pair of castrati, representatives from the Vatican Choir
  • Monsignor Henricus (Heinrich Himmler of Almaigne) and Monsignor Lavrentius (Lavrentiy Beria of Muscovy), representing the Holy Office in England
  • Cornelius van den Haag, ambassador from the Republic of New England
  • Hilda van den Haag, the ambassador’s daughter
  • Peter Thynne, ambitious Abbot of St. Cecelia’s Chapel
  • Father Matthew Lyall, Anvil family’s chaplain, confidante and lover to Dame Margaret Anvil

Other works about castrati:

  • Cry to Heaven (1982) – novel by Anne Rice; castrati in Italy in the 18th century.
  • Farinelli (1994) – film based on the life of Carlo Broschi, a famous 18th century castrato.
  • “Tito Amato Mysteries” – series of historical mystery novels by Beverle Graves Myers, starting with Interrupted Aria (2004); adventures of a Venetian castrato and amateur sleuth in 1730s Venice.


  1. The Alteration won the John W Campbell Award (1977), a juried award for best science fiction novel of the year (#2 – Man Plus by Frederik Pohl; #3 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm). What’s your opinion of its quality as an SF novel?
  2. What is “the alteration” of the novel’s title?
  3. Alternate history stories are all based on a “point of divergence” (for example: a war or an assassination). What’s your opinion on how The Alteration’s two points of divergence are used to set up this alternate time-line?
  4. Did Amis’s “world-building” (history, science, politics) make sense to you? Did you find his method for providing this information satisfying and effective?
  5. Did you enjoy the inclusion of “alternate” alternate history presented in the “time romance” book-within-a-book The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick?
  6. Do you think The Alteration’s “story” got lost in the “alternate history” and “world building”?
  7. The Alteration is filled with “Easter eggs” and hidden references (similar to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose). Did they contribute to your enjoyment of the book? Do you think a reader can enjoy the story without having to look them all up?
  8. The Alteration includes a number of F&SF and other literary references and connections (particularly as discussed by Hubert’s friends). Did you enjoy this aspect of the novel? Were you surprised to find them in a novel by an author who is not primarily known as an F&SF author?
  9. Do you think Amis has an anti-Catholic bias? An anti-religious bias? An anti-American bias? Or is he just anti-authoritarian?
  10. The Alteration only has two major female characters: Dame Margaret (Hubert’s mother) and Hilda (the ambassador’s daughter). What do you think about how they’re depicted?
  11. What’s your opinion of Hubert’s final choice? Were you disappointed? Did it make sense to you?
  12. What’s your opinion of the Queer content in The Alteration?
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