Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Learning The World

by Ken Macleod


Most science fiction that deals with first contact emphasises how weird the alien species is. In Learning The World Ken Macleod takes a different tack, introducing two cultures that are alike in more ways than they first realise.

In the far future the sunliner But The Sky, My Lady! The Sky is approaching its destination after four hundred years of travel. The occupants are in remarkably good shape, thanks to advances in medical science and a sophisticated approach to preventing conflict. Now a new generation of ship-born children are growing up, and they're getting ready to colonise the system they will soon reach.

One of these ship-born people is the teenager Atomic Discourse Gale. More or less all of the humans have names that are similar mouthfuls, such as Horrocks Mathematical or Grant Cornforth Dialectic. Some of the story is told through Atomic's biolog, which we would recognise as a blog, in which she makes candid observations of her world and the people around her.

Meanwhile on the planet known as Ground a civilisation of winged people are making great leaps forward. They are at a stage of development similar to Earth in the early 20th century. The astronomer Darvin and Orro, a foreign physicist, have discovered some unusual phenomena in space. But their findings appear to go largely unnoticed as their two countries prepare for war with each other. Military research is given priority over all else, so that even something as momentous as the discovery of aliens could be dismissed.

The sunliner is rocked by the revelation that there may be intelligent life at their destination. The humans are faced with new dilemmas about how they should make first contact, and what they should do to protect the people of Ground from discovering and misusing their advanced technologies.

Learning The World is impressively inventive, depicting the two civilisations in careful and vivid detail. Because they are so advanced, the humans on the sunliner are in many ways more alien to us than the bat people of Ground. Their concerns are curious and intangible. Kept peaceful by a set of rules and principles that have been developed over the centuries, and free from the fear of illness or death, they spend their time in virtual exploration and playing complex financial markets, almost as though the lives they lead are a game. By contrast the lives of the bat people are far more immediate and risky.

MacLeod's vision is compelling because it's both logical and sweeping. Aside from a few flights of fantasy when it comes to the sunliner's drive, the worlds the author has created are surprisingly believable in spite of their strangeness. Essentially this novel is an eye-opener which will appeal to readers who prefer the kind of science fiction that's rich in ideas and broad in scope.

Book Details

Year: 2005

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Ken Macleod