Learning the World: A Scientific Romance
by Ken MacLeod
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0765313316
Date: 01 November, 2005 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
From the setup, one would think this is a train wreck story, where everything leads up to the collision between cultures, and while that's true, the actual wreck more or less rushes on stage at the end without doing much. What leads up to it though is quite engaging as the author turns numerous cultural and SF tropes on their heads and shows us the view from the other side. What keeps the story going though isn't so much the question of whether or not the aliens will like us as when Horrocks will succumb to Stomic's attraction. It is by far the most compelling thread in the book and it's tied up offstage.
In the way of kids everywhere, the ship generation, as the colonizing generation is known, wants to know if they're there yet, and if they can get out and play. The oldsters, remembering the dawn of time, are more than a bit nervous about what a really bright, adaptive world of aliens might be able to do when they find out that space travel is possible, so they deliver the edict to hang back. Like that's going to happen. It's not like they really wanted to colonize the planet anyway. They'd much rather convert asteroids into habitats.
Meanwhile on the planet, it's the cold war and flying saucer hysteria, if writ smaller in a populace that's just harder to rile up. Of course the humans don't help all that much by sending probes to flyby the planet, and seeding the atmosphere with tiny bugs that infest real bugs and offer point of view to the observers on the ship.
Learning the World is a coming of age on a generation ship story, which traditionally requires the youthful protagonist to discover the lost truth that the world is really a spaceship and challenge the oldsters and their false dogmas. Not here. Atomic is a plucky youth, full of questions and ponderings, and the needs of her generation do come into conflict with that of the oldsters...but not for lack of appreciation of the situation. Rather the opposite, for Atomic's generation has been bred, schooled, and aimed at the colonization of an empty solar system, the only kind we've ever found, and the discovery of intelligent alien life throws all that in disarray.
MacLeod's soci-economics and politics are always fun to watch, and the ship and alien cultures are well realized, though the latter exists mostly to tweak our view in the mirror. The book begins with a promise that the name (and perhaps mission) of the ship will be revealed by the end, though whether it does or not is a bit hazy. What I'm very clear on though is my desire to read more stories set on or about the good ship But the Sky, My Lady, The Sky! . Perhaps the author will come up with a few short stories to flesh out what becomes of the characters, or the puzzle he sets out at the end.