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Learning The World: A Novel Of First Contact
Ken MacLeod
Orbit hardcover £17.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh is credited as the first novel to embrace the telephone. Perhaps Learning The World earns a similar mark with regard to blogging. The book title is also the name of the 'biolog' of a teenager aboard a generation ship approaching a new Solar system. This is clearly a blog - rather than a diary or journal - as others on the starship are shown to react to what they have read, and to attempt to influence what the blogger will write next. The blog is integrated into the narrative of events aboard the ship, which together form the first of the two strands of this novel. As the subtitle implies, there is a sentient species in the target system; their perspective makes up the other strand.

Humanity has been spreading across the galaxy for millennia without finding any sign of complex life elsewhere. As a result, the discovery of transmissions as the colonisers approach the target system is assumed to be human-caused or natural. The chapters from the planetary perspective, however, show sentient flying bat-like creatures, who call their planet Ground and themselves humans. They have built the internal combustion engine, achieved nation states and are employing astronomical telescopes. Clearly occupants of a roughly 20th century milieu, the viewpoint characters - astronomers, mathematicians, biologists and spies - are familiar types. Yet, there is much about them that is strange. Their society is convincingly one of creatures at home in the air, whilst there is a casual brilliance in the way they accept new ideas and invent new technologies. This is cleverly contrasted with the starship dwellers, who have lifestyles very different to ours. They involve themselves in such activities as trading phenotypic expression derivatives and live in distinct communities of gravity and non-gravity dwellers. And yet, their politicking and jockeying for position is quite natural to fellow Earth-type humans.

MacLeod has clearly enjoyed the world building for this book, both for the starship and for the planet. Their societies have considerable depth, both politically and economically, providing a solid, convincing context and adding drama to turns in the plot, without unnecessarily intruding into the foreground, or overwhelming the story with message. The author is also in conversation with other science fiction. There is a neat line that bounces off Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and his answer to Fermi's Paradox collects threads from both Stephen Baxter and Olaf Stapledon. The discussion of such matters, however, is almost all at the very end of the book. The penultimate chapter offers a glimpse of what the book might have become as a trilogy, but MacLeod gracefully steps away from the temptation. Instead, the information-dense final chapter reshapes the story arc revealing how carefully the epigraph was chosen. The chapter is the keystone to the book, enriching all that has gone before. Learning The World is another five star contribution to the genre from one of the best writers active in SF.
Learning the World

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