Ken Macleod’s “Learning the World”
September 24, 2007, 7:58 am
Filed under: Books

When I said a little while back that I would be posting occasionally on related books I meant that quite broadly — so broadly, indeed, that quite a lot of science fiction that makes no reference to photosynthesis at all might fall into the category. I quite often think of what I do as a writer as “non-fiction SF”, and I feel myself to be more explicitly in conversation with the genre than most popular science is. As it happens, though, a central image of Ken Macleod’s most-recent-but-one book, “Learning the World” (Amazon UK|US) is photosynthetic: a pair of batlike alien astronomers wondering why the starts in one particular direction in their sky are turning green. The implicit answer is that vast post-human colonization efforts are turning whole planetary systems into habitats, and if not creating Dyson spheres then at least putting enough of the starlight to photosynthetic use to shift the colour balance of the remainder. The action in the novel centres on a starship/spore from these green stars coming to the system of the alien space bats (and what a fine phrase that is); as the UK subtitle says, it is “a novel of first contact”, though it is also, rather cunningly, a novel of second contact. (In the US it’s subtitled “a scientific romance” instead).

I don’t think it’s Ken’s best book, but there’s a lot to like about it and some things to love. There’s a mixture of homage and critique towards Heinlein (and earlier Heinlein influenced work, such as Panshin’s “Rite of Passage“, I think, and maybe even Mike Ford’s “Growing Up Weightless“, but I’m out on a limb there, because I’ve never read the Ford, though typing this reminds me that I should); Constantine the Oldest Man has clear links to Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, though he is a lot less gabby, while Atomic Discourse Gale (a lot of the characters have names like that) reads like a protagonist from a Heinlein juvenile. At the same time the idea of human exceptionalism is interestingly subverted with the help of some ideas revealed right at the end that feel like a hybrid of Lee Smolin and David Brin (which I agree sounds scary). And its allied concept of manifest destiny is given very short shrift. There’s a nice feeling in the background about the simultaneous inevitability and costliness of progress, which I understand to be a theme of Winwood Reade’s “The Martyrdom of Man“, which provides both the epigraph and, movingly, tailpiece to the novel, and which I shall now endeavour to learn a little more about.

And there’s the fact that the vast spaceship is called “But The Sky, My Lady! The Sky!” For me, that’s terrific (not just in a gimmick way, but as an artfully delivered further reflection on progress). Your mileage may differ.

The book’s biggest problem, perhaps, is that it is just too close in set-up to Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky“, which seems to me to have set the bar for such entertainments high enough that to fail to clear it is no evidence of slacking. If you have read neither and imagine yourself likely to read only one, my strong advice would be to read the Vinge. If you have read neither but like first contact novels enough to feel sure you will read both then it might be best to read Learning the World first. (If there’s anyone who meets this description and follows my advice, which I’ll admit sounds unlikely, do let me know how that works out for you.)

1 Comment so far
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I read “Learning the world” before “A deepness in the sky”. I heard of Ken’s books first, and didn’t make the connection when I read Vinge’s.

I see the relationship now, and I think you may be right. Vinge’s story is strong enough for me, that it wasn’t shadowed by Ken’s. The reverse might not have been true. “Deepness” is just a tad, well, deeper, and they’re too similar. But “Learning” seems a bit shorter and more fun, and it’s distinct enough to be worth reading.

Comment by Alan Jenkins

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