“Everything you touch turns to gold. You could afford to retire in the grandest style and engage in any pursuit. Yet you become embroiled in the petty quarrels of a fallen civilization.”
“Fiction,” according to Jessamyn West, “reveals truth that reality obscures.” The same could go for fiction’s inchoate and obstreperous offspring, science fiction (SF).
Gary Wolf just keeps on putting the fiction—as defined by Jessamyn West—back into science fiction. For a generation that defines SF as Star Wars shoot-’em-up adventure, Gary Wolf’s work could come as something of a shock. “Sci-fi” that actually explores themes of identity, social structure, culture, politics, art, personality, and other timeless aspects of human nature? Can SF do that? Wolf’s fiction does it, and in so doing fulfills the latent potential in science fiction to comment on the world in a meaningful way.
Graham Rohde is one of the most respected art and antique dealers of the twenty-fourth century. Son of an eminent scholar, he is one of the period’s leading art historians. Rohde spends his time traveling across the Galaxy, buying and selling valuable objects. After an antique is stolen from an isolated and forgotten planet, he is hired to find the missing piece. He soon discovers that the theft is only one incident in an interplanetary dispute that is mushrooming into a clash of civilizations. A bitter struggle is erupting over the redefinition of humanity, and it may determine the destiny of the Galaxy for millennia to come.
Wolf’s style and subject matter remind me of some of the SF writers I encountered in my youth: Jack Vance, with his colorful and larger-than-life cultures; Poul Anderson, with his life-long concerns for rising and decaying civilizations; and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, with their satirical but rueful depictions of secular paradises irretrievably lost.
Wolf’s theme in Alternating Worlds, as in The Kicker of St. John’s Wood, is that cultures can decline and fall from within because they embrace decadence as a response to change. Rather than grow and evolve, cultures on the skids tend to normalize inertia, politically stagnate through a widespread acceptance of mediocrity and underachievement, discourage innovation and creative thought, and perversely institutionalize if not actually revere the practice of avoiding responsibility. Conformity of thought and behavior, political correctness ruthlessly enforced, multiculturalism and moral relativism, and fascist/socialist doctrines that suppress unorthodox artistic and philosophical expression seem to characterize moribund cultures that have no self-correcting mechanisms in place to shock them out of their lethargy. Does any of this sound familiar?
What’s worse, civilizations that accept these norms may have this irresistible urge to export them to other cultures, which is the underlying conflict in Alternating Worlds.
“The first AltCom assembled the planet’s greatest experts in history, sociology, philosophy, art, music, and other fields to map out all the permutations. They prepared a master plan. A phased alternance cycle that would last five thousand years.”
“Are you saying that it would take five thousand years to represent all the interactions between the truths that existed on Gladius before the revolution?”
When you read Alternating Worlds, you’ll discover how the theft of an art deco teapot dating from the 1920s could assume such overwhelming significance in the 2300s and why it could become emblematic of a cultural divide of Galactic proportions. But more—you’ll rediscover truths about the human spirit that are ignored or even actively denigrated by today’s would-be cultural arbiters.
Previous American Culture articles about Gary Wolf:
Mike Gray—”Q & A with Gary Wolf.”
Gary Wolf books available on Amazon.com:
Workshop of the Second Self
The Kicker of St. John’s Wood
They’re also available on iUniverse as print or e-books.