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REVIEW: Learning The World by Ken Macleod


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The generational ship But The Sky, My Lady! The Sky! is on a mission to colonize a new solar system for humanity. Upon arrival, they discover one of the planets is already inhabited by intelligent beings on the cusp of an industrial revolution. This discovery sets into motions various conflicts both between the crew of The Sky and on Ground.


PROS: Interesting far future human society, intriguing alien planet cool ideas surrounding humans and the aliens.

CONS: I just can’t get into Macleods writing style, ending seemed to be very rushed. Too much inter colonist politics.

BOTTOM LINE: If you like Ken Macleod’s other works, you’ll probably like this. Also, a first contact novel that devotes almost equal time to the stories of both sides.

I really wanted to like this book. The back cover makes a strong case for the story, and being short-listed for the Hugo only upped the anticipation. However, like other Macleod books I’ve read, I found the story just didn’t live up to it’s billing. Macleod has some very interesting ideas here, and in his other books, I guess I’m just not enamored of how he writes them. But first, a short synopsis.

The colony ship But The Sky, My Lady! The Sky!, is part of a vast human colonization effort, as humanity is expanding into every star system and changing them meet their needs. The general plan is to enter a system, spin off the new generation of colonists, genetically bred to expand into the new system, help the system along and then create a new generational ship, head to a new system and start over. However, when The Sky enters the vicinity of Ground, they discover it’s already inhabited. This sets off a inter-generational conflict between the crew, the new generation and older generation of The Sky. On Ground, the discovery of an oddly moving ‘comet’ inflames the tensions between the two largest nations. From here, the humans primary mode of conflict is political. Should they go ahead and colonize ground, overwhelming the aliens, or take a wait and see approach and negotiate with them? The newer generation, being bred for colonizing, pushes for immediate contact and colonization of the system. On Ground, the aliens struggle between themselves to see who will contact the aliens, or, maybe, come together to present a united front.

As stated before, LtW has a lot of cool ideas in it. The human colonization efforts are akin to a biological Von Neumann probe. Now, I read somewhere that this idea in LtW was based on book, which I used to own, about a green, environmentally friendly method of colonization. (Ed. – I thought it was called The Millennium Project, but that term doesn’t get me what I’m looking for.) The human society is definitely a far future, transhuman one, with genetic modifications the rule, virtual reality existing at the same level as true reality, and terraforming is done, not on a planetary scale, but system wide. The aliens also have an interesting pre-industrial age society and we get to see scientists go about their jobs and make big discoveries. Chock full of cool SF ideas.

Unfortunately for me, the story and writing just didn’t live up to the hype. One of the main areas of conflict amongst the humans was in the political arena. I’m not usually put off with that, but in this case, it just wasn’t that interesting. Although, the main genesis of the conflict is a blog-like site on the colonists network called Learning The World, written by one of the teenage colonists. The politics here were just too convoluted to be interesting. Until overt action was needed, then the human story became more appealing. On Ground, the aliens are struggling with the notion that they aren’t alone and the visitors are much more advanced. The two main powers both enter projects to try and contact the humans and be on the winning side of any contact. There was some political maneuvering here too, but it took a back seat to how the events were affecting the main characters, who are both scientists. In fact, I found the alien’s story to be more exciting than the human one. Which is too bad, since Macleod makes an effort to show that the humans are not trying to be imperialistic and do try to lessen any impact on the aliens. Even so, the human story fell flat. I guess most of the blame for this can be placed on the writing style, which I would consider technically competent, but lacking in depth or sparkle. It felt flat as well. Macleod, to me, just doesn’t have the same wit and verve in his writing as, say, his Scottish counterpart Iain Banks does. Personal opinion here. The last annoying part for me was the ending. Macleod spends the better part of 400 pages setting up the conflicts then, time jump, wrap up. It felt like Macleod decided he needed to end it in a hurry, much like a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode would be wrapped up in the last 5 minutes. Disconcerting, and the payoff didn’t meet my expectations.

So, all in all, a decent book, but not great. I know a lot of people like Macleod, which is probably why it made the short list for the Hugo.

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

2 Comments on REVIEW: Learning The World by Ken Macleod

  1. MacLeod seems to push different buttons in different people. You either really like him or you don’t. He does pack in a lot of ideas and a lot of politics into his stories. Personaly I like him but Rosie (my co host at Meme Therapy) can’t stand his characters for some inexplicable reason.

  2. Randy Campbell // May 10, 2006 at 6:17 pm //

    The name your looking for is “The Millennial Project” by Marshall Savage. Long out of print, but there is a ‘diffuse’ internet group that keeps it’s spirit and dream alive.

    (According to one memeber MacLeod actually acknowledges TMP in the forward to the book :o)

    Randy Campbell

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