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Ken MacLeod – Learning the WorldLearning the World is Ken MacLeod doing First Contact – and doing it well, and in an interesting and thought-proviking way.
Learning the World is also the title of the Biolog (should translate easily enough) of one Atomic Discourse Gale, of the 10th Ship Generation of the Sunliner But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky!, which is approaching its target for colonization, their ‘Destiny Star’. They have been travelling for nearly 400 years, and are now raising and training the generation which will colonize, build habitats, mine and connect the planets and asteroids, and fill the ship with fuel and the next founder generation to move on to the next system in the ever-expanding human sphere.

Things don’t go as planned, though, as for the very first time in human history the system they find is populated by intelligent beings. They call themselves humans (we are the aliens, of course, from their point of view), look bat-like (this is our comparison, we look like flightless, stunted creatures to them), and are at an early industrial stage of their development.

How should the humans (er, us) proceed? Contact, settle, and most likely squash the locals, as we used to in our past? Hold off, go away, and risk to be torn apart by internal forces, given that the settlers are ready to go? No, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, the settlers have been raised and trained, the market forces are in full swing, and the choice seems to boil down to Genocide or intra-species war. Nice.

The story is told from 3 separate points of view – we get ‘standard’ story telling in the 3rd person from both the ship and from the planet itself, the latter mainly following a young scientist called Darvin. This is interspersed with extracts from Gale’s Biolog, giving an insight into the mind and life of one of the ship generation (ship generation in contrast to crew and founders, which are the other main groups on board) as she learns her own World, then the Alien’s , and whilst she witnesses the beginning of humanity learning to live in a world, or a universe, where it is not alone.
Seeing (and learning) the alien world through Darvin’s story in parallel to seeing what the colonists learn through their surveillance makes for a very interesting experience, too. And the Alien’s first reflex to seeing the arriving ship in their system is, depressingly, to arm themselves to defend against the intruders who want to take over their land/planet. And, even more depressingly, they are entirely correct about it…

The reference points are many, even if one ignores the First Contact setting itself. The scientific work and general societal story on the planet is reminiscent of Vinge’s Deepness in the Sky, or, to a lesser degree, MacLeod’s own Cosmonaut Keep. There are hints and nods to a number of other authors and stories, let me just mention Asimov’s Ugly Little Boy. The pragmatism of the aliens (them) reminded me of A D Foster’s Quotzl, but that might just be me (or might have been a conceit to cut the story short). Ah, and if the name of the ship reminded you of Banks and his Culture ships then you’re not alone… the author sees to generally have a laugh with naming and refences (the aliens call the Milky Way the ‘Shining Path’).
There were things which didn’t gel with me – logical gaps and inconsistencies in the story, exhibition of some facts promised but never delivered, and some things like the history of humanity (there are regular referrals to living in caves on the Moon, which circles the system’s primary, archaically referred to as Earth) is frequently alluded to but never really told. But all of these are minor quibbles, and don’t spoil a well written book.

Overall this is a very interesting and well executed take on First Contact – I’m not completely sure if Ken aimed to write this as Hard SF, but there’s definitely no Space Opera tropes in here (with the exception of Aliens, to be nit-picking), and there was nothing which grated against my understanding of basic physics. Entertaining, thought provoking, and too short for me.
Get it, read it, enjoy it.

Thanks to Little Brown for the review copy.

More Ken MacLeod

Title: Learning the World
Subtitle: A Novel of First Contact
Author: Ken MacLeod
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Orbit
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: 2005 (2007 reprint)
Review Date: 101217
ISBN: 9781841493442
Price: UKP 6.99
Pages: 398
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: First Contact



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