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Ever since H G Wells wrote War of the Worlds and described the Martians ruthlessly zapping the Home Counties, we've seen countless visions of how we might react to learning we're not alone in the universe. From government cover-ups and conspiracies to all-out interplanetary war, aliens coming to visit is a science-fiction staple.
In Ken MacLeod's "Learning the World", however, humanity has a long way to go before meeting new life. MacLeod suggests a universe so vast that humans conquer space travel and colonise vast numbers of star systems before finally encountering intelligent life.
In this novel, we are the invaders. And most of the ship's crew has a different opinion on how to go about things.
Aboard the sunliner 'But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky!', it's clear that a lot of evolution separates the characters in the novel from you and me. The engineers are so accustomed to working in zero-gravity that they can't walk on two feet without a great deal of practice. At adulthood, young people get access to all sorts of groovy augmented abilities. You can live for centuries.
But the spirit of the 21st Century teenager is alive and well in young Atomic Discourse Gale, who writes a pretentious blog called 'Learning the World'. Although she misses out the bad poetry about pets.
MacLeod's choice of narrator for the sections of the novel aboard the sunliner is sensible. Although Atomic gains her groovy augmented powers during the course of the book, at the start she's a normal human finding out more about the environment she's grown up in, easing the reader into this very strange world by using a character we can identify with.
And it is a very strange world indeed. As usual for highly advanced technological civilisations in contemporary science-fiction, everyone seems to be shagging everyone else out of general idleness. People make their fortunes speculating on the mineral content of passing asteroids. The youngest generation on board the ship obsesses about creating habitats that sound more like planetary theme parks.
Contrast is eventually provided as the sunliner detects signals from the planet 'Ground' - home to giant bat creatures that are just becoming industrialised. MacLeod's depiction of this quaint civilisation was the book's highlight to me. Where the sunliner reads as a bit of an Iain Banks rip-off in places, Ground has a fully fleshed society. The bats go to cute bars where they get drunk by biting into fermented fruits. They have universities but also mutilate their own kind for slave labour. They preen each other on romantic assignations but snap the wings off live prey animals so their young can feed more easily. And they have politicians and secret services, and a Cold War with another continent.
Frankly, it's just such a rich creation that I found myself wincing a bit every time the action switched back to the sunliner where everything's gosh-wow and conferences happen in seconds and everyone's telepathic.
Just before I sound as though I'm writing off the traditional science-fiction elements of the book, the one thing I really liked was a bit that stood out head and shoulders above everything else aboard the sunliner. Ground detects the arrival of the sunliner - realising it's a sign of intelligent life due to the fact they can tell it's decelerating as it approaches.
It's decelerating because the sunliner people have spent the last four hundred years piling all their rubbish in a huge mountain at the front of the ship - ready to pile it into the fusion reactor to act as reaction mass. It's a bit of solid, plausible science that advances the story, exactly what science-fiction should be about as far as I'm concerned.
Events in the novel reach a head as the sunliner's population becomes divided on what should be done about the planet - and most of the ethical dilemnas will be broadly familiar to anyone who's watched a bit of Star Trek.
The ending is surprising, as a novel characterised by hand-wringing and inactivity ends in a flurry of action, but it also feels right. The idea that there are events so important that we have to learn the world all over again is a simple one, but elegantly stated.
This is a book for people who quite like science-fiction, but there's a lot of mileage there for less specialised readers, and there's a nicely philosophical heart to the whole thing.
"Learning the World" is a tale of space exploration told from the points of view of a number of protagonists in the distant future of humanity. As the space exploration (generation) ship "But the sky, my lady! The sky!" nears its destination after hundreds of years of travel, the inhabitants start to get excited about the prospect of being able to colonise the system.
Sending out probes to gather information on likely sources of raw materials, the ship's inhabitants are shocked to discover that one of the main planets in the system, known locally as 'Ground', is populated by intelligent beings that are a little advanced, technologically.
Putting the ship into a kind of stealth mode orbiting the sun of this star system, they begin debating on a course of action on whether there is any way they can continue to populate this system or whether they have to leave it again, either to return home to attempt to find another system.
Unbeknownst to the ship's crew though, is that their arrival has not gone unnoticed.
"Learning the World" is a new take on the old story of space exploration which are quite commonplace in science fiction writing, but "Learning the World" introduces new ideas to give it a fresher feel to it than others in the genre. Told from a number of different viewpoints, we find out the reactions to a possible first contact scenario from various factions within both the human generation ship and the population of Ground.
Atomic Discourse Gale writes a blog that she's entitled "Learning the World" and from this the thoughts of the younger ship generation are revealed. The rest of the tale is told in traditional fashion, including the events unravelling on Ground when the bat-like people suddenly realise that what they thought was a comet is something even more exciting and potentially dangerous.
The blog method of telling part of the story is reasonably effective. It does go some way to explaining some things that might not be immediately apparent and while the author shies away from over-complicating matters with huge swathes of technology, there are a lot of ideas that MacLeod uses that do require an explicit explanation rather than be obvious with a passing comment during the narrative.
Most of any possible confusion does raise its head during the passages with the humans, possibly because the story takes place thousands of years in humanity's future where moral values, technology etc are going to be quite alien to us. It's perhaps strange that the reader might actually be able to relate more to the bat people whose technological levels are probably around those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries than the futuristic humans (I know I did at several times).
The plot moves from start to finish at a steady pace, not really changing as it progresses and even the ending is treated in the same way as the resolution is not rushed towards. I felt that the consistency of the pacing helped the readability of the book, freeing you to concentrate more on the characters and story than worry about the passage of time or swamping you with too much at one go.
Other than the possibility of slight confusion in places due to some of the author's ideas (although nothing that would confuse the plot), there are not really an awful lot of negative aspects of the book, assuming you're a fan of the genre. I found it extremely easy to read and the blog entries are printed in a darker, bolder typeface than the rest of the book, so these are easily identifiable compared with the rest of the story, which I found extremely interesting and offered something a little different to the normal space exploration stuff that I've previously read.
The great sunliner 'But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky!' is nearing the end of a four-hundred-year journey. A ship-born generation is tense with expectation for the new system that is to be their home. Expecting to find nothing more complex than bacteria and algae, the detection of electronic signals from one of the planets comes as a shock. In millennia of slow expansion, humanity has never encountered aliens, and yet these new signals cannot be ignored. They suspect a fast robot probe has overtaken them, and send probes of their own to investigate. On a world called Ground, whose inhabitants are struggling into the age of radio, petroleum and powered flight, a young astronomer searching for distant planets detects an anomaly that he presumes must be a comet. His friend, a brilliant foreign physicist, calculates the orbit, only to discover an anomaly of his own. The comet is slowing down ...