by Ken MacLeod



302pp/$24.95/November 2005

Learning the World

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Ken MacLeod's novel of first contact, Learning the World, focuses on two species coming together.  One is our own human race, living aboard a generation ship which has been traveling for 400 years.  The other is a race of bat-like aliens on their home world.  One of the things which sets Learning the World apart from other first contact stories is the fact that MacLeod's alien race is more familiar than the human culture he describes.

Alternating chapters between the humans and the alien space bats, MacLeod portrays each civilization and culture in its own way, although there are similarities. The aliens notice a strange moving comet that doesn't behave properly and try to figure out what it is.  The humans notice something strange about a planet in orbit around the star Destiny, and fear that some human society has stolen a march on their four-hundred year journey. As each race begins to understand what they are seeing better, their reactions change.

The alien chapters tend to focus more on the cultural importance of the new discovery, whatever it might turn out to be.  The humans on the generation ship But The Sky, My Lady! The Sky! tend to have a more political point of view, although they are not shown as politics as defined by the left-center-right paradigm currently in use. Eventually, the humans have a factional split along age lines.

The human society, as MacLeod describes it, is very much tied in to a system of communication somewhat akin to modern day blogging. Among the primary characters is a young girl with the name Atomic Discourse Gale.  Much of the human section of the book is shown through her entries or her story, including her meeting and relationship, either cooperative or antagonistic, with Constantine, an ancient on the ship who provided its rather strange name.

Scientists form the bulk of the characters shown on the alien world, focusing on the astronomer Darvin and his colleague Orro and mate Kwarive.  Their application of the scientific method to their strange discovery, along with the methodology for confirming their discoveries is part of what makes them seem more human than the humans.  At the same time, there is a feeling about them reminiscent of the alien scientists in Isaac Asimov's short story "Nightfall."

MacLeod's examinations of these cultures builds to the ending, yet when the cultures eventually do make contact, it is anticlimactic. The importance in this book is less the actual contact than the anticipation of contact and the changes, whether societal or political.  By separating his examination of those two aspects into two sections, it only draws the reader's attention to them more.

Learning the World is a far cry from MacLeod's political examinations of previous books, yet it is just as intricate in its examination of the human condition.  The politics in Learning the World are not tied to the politics of the modern day, yet they are clearly tied to human interactions.  The cultural conflicts brought about by imminent first contact are equally complex and interesting.

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