Book Review: ‘Learning the World’ by Ken Macleod

Ken Macleod’s latest novel, ‘Learning the World’ is a new twist on the classic ‘first contact’ trope that has been a long been a staple of SF. A generation ship from a huge post-human federation is in the final approach to a new system that they intend to colonise, much as their origin system and many hundreds before it were colonised. The model for this operation is ecologically based, relying on outer system resources and rarely straying into gravity wells.

The generation ship has a complex society based on extrapolations of current political, social and financial systems; it is geared towards producing a generation of colonists to exploit the rich resources the new system can provide, while eventually producing a new ark to repeat the process. But the smooth running of this process is thrown into disarray by an utterly unique and unprecedented event – the discovery of a sentient race on the system’s terrene planet, where previously humanity has only discovered very basic life forms of a similar evolutionary level to algae or lichen.

This race of avian humanoids are at a technological level that has recently discovered basic electronics and advanced astronomy, but due to their nature as flying creatures they have yet to achieve heavier-than-air flight, and hence have yet to consider the possibilities of spaceflight. The novel focuses on not just the POV of the would-be colonists, but the bat-like race that they stumble across. Macleod handles both perspectives brilliantly; the baffled but dynamic ethical politicking of the colonists, and the justifiably paranoid responses of the bat-people as they react to the arrival of an unknown factor into their pre-spaceflight worldview.

The resultant tale bristles with tension, each opposing section pulling the reader through the plot as one is tempted to discover how each side in the conflict will react to the latest developments. But what makes this a unique ‘first contact’ tale is the introduction of Macleod’s deep understanding of advanced science and social dynamics, and the sensitive treatment of situations that, thirty years ago, would have been written as a straight martial conflict with little examination of ethics. At once an intriguing vision of a future post-human society and a commentary on human imperialism today, ‘Learning the World’ scores points as both a scholarly work and a superbly written and imagined story. An inspiring read.

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