Learning The World by Ken MacLeod

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Book Information  
AuthorKen MacLeod
TitleLearning The World
SeriesA First Contact Novel
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by Archren 
(Jun 17, 2006)

While I was reading “Learning the World,” I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I’d read it before. In fact that it had been nominated for a Hugo before, when it was written by Vernor Vinge and was called “A Deepness in the Sky.” It’s probably not fair, but I could never get past that comparison.

In much the same way as Vinge’s novel, “Learning the World” is told from two alternating viewpoints. The first is based on a generation ship full of humans. Over the past 400 years they’ve journeyed from the nearest star to colonize this system. In all of humanity’s expansion they’ve never encountered intelligent life before. We learn a lot about the ship from the biolog (blog) of Atomic Discourse Gale, a teenager born on the ship, preparing for her role as an entrepreneurial colonist.

The other viewpoint is from the aliens. They’re very much like bats, and they’re very much like humans around the 1920s. They have internal combustion engines, a pretty good understanding of astronomy, but haven’t gotten to nuclear power yet. We mostly follow Darvin, an astronomer who finds the generation ship decelerating into their system and then is near the center of the aliens' coordination of their response.

MacLeod puts his emphasis in different places than Vinge does: the internal politics of the ship are completely different and have a lot more to do with social systems. They aren’t in a crisis the way Vinge’s humans were. And the bats aren’t fighting World War II the way Vinge’s spiders were. Their big drawback is their enslavement of a species that closely resembles themselves. In the end, as you would expect from MacLeod’s past writings, the plot focuses more on systems of politics and societal structures.

Still, the writing doesn’t quite achieve what is needed. For the first half of the book, the ship chapters are simply boring. While he artfully shifts tones for his three different needs (Atomic’s blog, the omniscient narrator for the rest of the ship scenes, and the omniscient narrator for the alien scenes), only the alien scenes are fun to read. Towards the latter half, as the ship descends into self-inflicted chaos and crisis, their chapters also get interesting. But it’s not quite enough to make up for that first half. It’s a good book to read, no doubt. And if you hadn’t read “A Deepness in the Sky” or “Omega” by Jack McDevitt, the you might find it fresher than I did. However, if you have read those, you could skip this one without missing terribly much. I’m a little surprised that this earned a Hugo nomination, but given the critical acclaim of the two books I’m comparing it to, perhaps I shouldn’t be.

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