Learning the World

Posted by : atcampbell | On : April 2, 2007

Learning the World by Ken MacLeod

Seven people showed up at the North Village library to discuss this recent Hugo-nominated novel, and another submitted comments by email. The far-future story is about a group of humans who undertake a long space voyage to reach a planet they plan to settle, only to discover that it is already inhabited. The story weaves between the story of the settlers and of the bat-like inhabitants of the planet, who gradually realize something is going on. All of us had read MacLeod before, and all but one had started and finished Learning the World.

The human society on the spaceship is well-developed. There is a complex culture involving three classes: founders, crews, and the ship generation, and there are viewpoint characters from each class to showcase the classes’ differences and interactions. The human settlers had great names: Atomic Discourse, Horrocks Mathematical, Synchronic Narrative Storm, and more. They even wrote and read their own science fiction, which they called “engineering tales.”

Most of us found the story of the bat people on the planet more interesting. The technical level of their culture resembles that of 20th Century Earth. We liked the viewpoint characters Darvin and Orro. Their daily lives are portrayed with enough detail that you can see they are alien, yet they are understandable. We appreciate how intelligently they detected the coming of the settlers and the scientific approach they took toward learning more.

We discussed MacLeod’s writing style. A couple of people commented that they “love the way he writes.” Another person enjoyed this book tremendously and said he felt this book was “MacLeod’s first comedy.” Yet another person observed that the book had been unusually hard for him to get into, and he never got totally engaged in the story.

We enjoyed reading a First Contact story for the first time in quite a while. We liked the philosophical discussions about the issues of meeting another culture. The story briefly addresses the Fermi Paradox (“if there is life on other planets, why haven’t we encountered it?”), but several of us found MacLeod’s argument flawed. A couple of people complained that the end was preachy; another person, who’d read most of MacLeod’s work, said it was less preachy than most of the author’s work.

Overall we liked Learning the World for its fresh take on a traditional science fiction situation. After the meeting, several of us had a nice dinner at Houston’s.

— A. T. Campbell, III