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Learning the World: a Scientific Romance Hardcover – October 27, 2005

3.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. British author MacLeod (Newton's Wake) delivers perhaps the finest novel of first contact since Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. When the starship But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky! enters a new star system, its crew assumes that they will seed yet another human, or rather posthuman, colony and continue on their way. It's all rather routine, a matter for financial speculation and trading in economic futures, something they've done often before. Imagine their surprise, however, when they discover that the system is already inhabited, by a batlike species who have just recently entered their own industrial revolution. Meanwhile, on the second planet in the system, a talented young astronomer has made a startling discovery: something is approaching from interstellar space, something clearly artificial. MacLeod has created a captivating alien civilization that, in some ways, is closer to us than his equally fascinating posthumans. As always with this deeply political writer, the book is chock-full of well-done extrapolation concerning the political and economic workings of his various societies. This is contemporary SF at its best. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School A colony ship full of genetically enhanced posthumans reaches its destination only to discover that the planet is populated by batlike people at a primitive stage of technology just short of an electronic age. After millennia of expansion throughout the galaxy without having encountered another intelligent race, humans had come to think it impossible; for their part, the bat people have always thought that space aliens could exist only in engineering tales. The novel unfolds over several years through the alternating stories of two young people: Alternate Discourse Gale, a feisty posthuman on the ship as she leaves home to join her teen cohort of colonizers (Learning the World is the title of her blog); and Darvin, a graduate bat-student in the Impractical Science of astronomy, who discovers the colony ship while mapping the heavens from a mountaintop on his planet. The story moves rapidly, with many twists and surprises. Through action and character, the author masterfully creates an authentic sense of both alien worlds in all their complexity. Of the far-future humans and the bat people, the latter are closer to humans as we are now, and the interplay of the two worlds, each with its numerous cultural and political rivalries, is engaging, rich in social commentary, and often moving, yet also playful and often humorous. Thought-provoking and entertaining, this highly original first-contact story should please any science fiction reader. Christine C. Menefee, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 303 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books; 1st edition (November 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0765313316
  • ISBN-13: 978-0765313317
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,628,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Richard R. Horton on April 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Learning the World is, as its subtitle informs us, a novel of first contact. It tells the story of first contact from both sides.

The main human character is named Atomic Discourse Gale, and she is one of the "ship generation" of a starship traveling to a new system. These ships are traditional generation starships, sort of, except that people are so long lived that there aren't exactly generations. Instead there are founders, who mostly pay for the ship and expect to profit from the resources of the new star system, then go on to a new system; crew, who run the ship; and the "ship generation", mostly children born on the journey, who will in general colonize the new system. Humans have been expanding throughout the nearer stars for centuries, never encountering any life more advanced than slime molds, pretty much. They generally set up habitats in asteroid belts, and each star system seeds new journeys to the next system in line. Atomic is a biologgeras her ship enters the new system, where they soon learn ...

that the system is inhabited. By fully intelligent, batlike, aliens. Of a roughly Victorian level of technology. And the main character here is Darvin, a scientist. He discovers an unexpected new object in their system -- obviously, the human ship. And before long he and his lover and a scientist friend are at the center of attempts to understand what they soon gather are human attempts to observe their planet.

The story contrasts the human reaction to a totally unexpected

discovery -- which is in part that of a long peaceful society disturbed nearly to the point of war -- with the alien reaction, which is, surprisingly, that of a long warlike society somehow coming together in peace.
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Format: Hardcover
Learning the World is another very good novel from Ken MacLeod. It's both a great first contact novel as well as, like most other MacLeod works, an incisive look into how societies work.

The novel alternates between two separate threads, which come together over the course of the book. The first thread follows a group of humans, many thousand of years in the future, living in a huge starship as it approaches another star system. The society aboard the ship is quite intricate - far more so than that in most classic SF centered around generational star ships. It really is broken into three interacting groups - the founders, who are the original generation, the ship generations, who were born during the 400 year journey, and the crew, who don't expect to stay around when the others leave to colonize a system but will instead continue on. MacLeod does a great job in laying out both the social interactions and the economic interactions of the three groups. MacLeod has an interest in economic models, and the depictions of how the various groups use markets to speculate on what will happen and to finance ongoing efforts are convincing and something generally ignored in most other novels of this type.

The main character in this first thread is a teenage girl of the ship generation, Atomic Discourse Gale. She's a very bright and thoughtful kid, who keeps a biolog (essentially a blog) that is followed by many others aboard the ship. She's a more realistic (and in the end, more likeable, for all her flaws) character than similar ones created by Heinlein.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ken MacLeod dazzled us all with his original Fall Revolution series, and then delivered below expectations with his fairly boring Engines of Light trilogy. He seemed to be starting a comeback with Newton's Wake, but that appears to have been an anomalously decent book in an otherwise protracted series of boring, half-sketched novels.

In this, his most recent, novel, we alternate viewpoints between members of a sub-light-speed interstellar ship, and the aliens living on the destination planet. This approach is quite reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's _A Deepness in the Sky_. The scheming factions on the starship, and the back-channel communication between one faction and the aliens only further the comparison...which is all to MacLeod's disadvantage, as reminding us of an outstanding novel can only reveal more starkly just how far short his own novel falls.

The characterization is stunningly flat: only the aliens have much personality, and even then, not much: they seem like fictional versions of MacLeod and his pub-frequenting Scottish political chit-chat buddies (the same set that appear in every single novel MacLeod has ever written) - the only difference is these guys have wings, and don't actually live in Scotland, just a place that resembles it.

The plot is fairly uncomplicated, although a few bits that are relevant are presented hastily and then rushed from the stage. When the political denouement comes, how many factions are there on the starship? Two? Three? Four?? It's not quite clear, and the exact reasons that they've factionalized beyond the initial two groups are also only roughly sketched out....and, heck, for that matter, the decision to escalate a minor disagreement into full bore factionalization is also handled sloppily and confusingly.
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