Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review of Learning the World by Ken Macleod

After opening his career in science fiction with the original Fall Revolution series, Ken Macleod has since been going through the genre’s major tropes and conceptions to find inspiration.  The Engines of Light trilogy hard sf meets space opera and Newton’s Wake full blown space opera, for his next novel Learning the World (2005) Macleod decided to go the first contact route. 

A dual-perspective novel, the actual contact between humanity and a bat-like alien species comes very late in the novel.  Humanity interestingly the species technically advanced enough to do the contacting, Learning the World oscillates back and forth between characters in a generation starship approaching a new system and the aliens who inhabit one of the planets in the system as the two notice signs of the other before actual contact.  The aliens having a WWII level of technology, first contact technically (ha!) occurs when the aliens notice a new “star” moving through their night sky.  Other strange, unnatural things popping up in their atmosphere and environment, they quickly figure out they are not alone.  Meanwhile on the ship, factions appear once humanity observes likfe on the planet and likewise figures out it is not alone.  The main draw of Learning the World is thus the manner in which each side learns about the other and the relative effect it has on their societies.

As Dan Hartland has pointed out more eloquently than me, Learning the World is an insular novel; for its details, inferences, homages, and stance within genre it is best appreciated by hardcore science fiction fans.  Thus what makes the story insular is that little of the story, save perhaps occasional, brief moments the aliens act like mirrors to humanity, transcends the page.  The unique political aspects what made Macleod’s Fall Revolution series so engaging, with Learning the World the reader just has entertaining sf—tightly constructed and occasionally laugh out loud sf, but genre confection nonetheless.  I keep waiting for Macleod to consistently return to the sophistication of the Fall Revolution series...

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