Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review - Alternating Worlds by Gary Wolf

Short review: The war between the cultured and the hoi polloi is fierce, and the chosen battleground is artwork and human limbs.

Replicating cultures
Amputating limbs

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Alternating Worlds is a science fiction novel with a point. Not a very good point, or a point that is particularly well made, but a point nonetheless. Subtler than The Kicker of St. John's Wood, and a better book, this book sets culture against cultural relativism in a fairly effective and entertaining manner.

The story follows Rohde, an art dealer and expert on the "extractionism" style, starting with his dealings with the isolated and bizarre world of Gladius, the cultural destruction of his home world, and his ultimate attempts to strike back at his enemies. Gladius, it turns out, practices the "alternance cycle" in which all old cultural periods are aped by the populace in order to uncover the ultimate truth - that all truths are equally valid. The trouble is, each cultural period must be replicated perfectly, and in accordance with the calculations of the "Alternance Committee", even if that requires individuals to be maimed, disfigured, diseased, or killed. All individuality is subordinated to the alternance cycle.

As long as they remain on Gladius, the Alternance Committee is odd and annoying. Unfortunately, they don't stay there. First by military conquest, and then by cultural conquest, the Gladians overwhelm their enemies, apparently because they believe the entire region of known space must be made to follow the alternance cycle for it to work. The idea of a cultural takeover is interesting, and the battlefields of the book are the museums, symphonies, and publishing houses of Cyrus, Rohde's home world. The cultural icons of his world are progressively undermined by a populist movement that smears and denigrates the accomplishments of genius in favor of extolling the "unsung heroes" who really did the work - the drunk carpenters who supposedly scribbled the foundations of extractionism, the brutish laborer who was abused by Schulmann, and so on.

The book gets off to a slightly rocky start, with some fairly clunky passages in the first few chapters, but the writing improves as the story gets going. The main problem with the story is that the attraction of the alternance cycle is not really explained. Exactly why the populace of Cyrus jumps into the "denigrate the artist" mode is simply taken as a given, with half-hearted explanations - even those who are supposedly cultured are swept up by the movement to equate industrious but ordinary labor with the products of genius, and to tag the creative geniuses who made those products as deviant and perverted. The novel is clearly intended as a political critique of modern liberalism, but the alternance cycle is so unlike anything that appears in reality that the political commentary falls flat on its face and simply makes the author look just a little bit ridiculous.

As a result, the story is somewhat one-sided, presenting at best a caricature of crticism. We are clearly meant to side with Rohde in his attempts to defend his culture against the relativism espoused by the Gladians, and we do, but there is no real reason given for those lining up opposite Rohde to do so. As a result, the dénouement (which narrowly, and thankfully, avoids a deus ex machina) is fairly obvious - so obvious that one ends up wondering why Rohde and his allies (supposedly the intellectual elite of their planet) didn't think of it sooner.

In addition, like The Kicker of St. John's Wood, the opposition simply comes off as too all pervasive and stifling - every time the protagonist does something, he is foiled, to the extent that for much of the book, he simply gives up. Unstoppable conspiracies may sound interesting, but it turns out, they really are not. Although the position the novel takes on the issue of cultural relativism is one that I sympathize with to a modest extent, and the idea of a war fought by means of cultural annihilation is interesting, the lack of any real explanation of the attraction the protagonist's opposition has for their position prevents this book from rising above the ordinary.

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