Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

After a string of increasingly incomprehensible books that focused too much on politics at the expense of everything else, MacLeod’s entry this year is something of a throwback, a first contact story, or as the subtitle says, “a scientific romance”. In the future everyone has weird names, from the main human viewpoint character, the young girl Atomic Discourse Gale, to the generation ship she lives in, called “But the Sky, My Lady, the Sky”. Atomic maintains a blog where she divulges information to her fellow pilgrims on strange signals coming from the same star system they’re heading to colonize. This turns out to be the first encounter with another intelligent species, dubbed the Alien Space Bats, who have their own civilization and are aware that some unusual object is heading their way.

Things take a turn late in the book as the starship pulls up nearby to start their colonization process and the politics ramp up. The space-bat society makes use of a lower caste drone class, which are inadvertently uplifted by scientific nano-tech unknowingly released by the ship. This causes some unrest down on the planet, while back at the ship, Atomic and her pals born on the ship are old enough now to be considered indepedent colonists in their own right, but those who have been there from the beginning have their own ideas about what to do in this situation, and there’s a certain amount of double-crossing. MacLeod seems most interested in the inevitable conflict that arises when any two cultures first meet, not even so much between the cultures as within each culture independently. He captures well the arrogant, young-person attitude of Atomic, and the two main space-bat characters, Kwarive and Darwin, are amusingly congenial in translation, presumably they don’t sound quite so human in their own language, but MacLeod prefers to give them easily relatable emotions, motivations and interactions, they even think of themselves as human.

If there’s anything to gripe about here, it’s that in the end it all seems a bit thin, which can be said of other MacLeod books I’ve read. The story is much easier to follow than usual to be sure, so it makes for an entertaining read, but to some degree that serves to shortchange the amount of space to devote to the political and sociological implications that would seem to be the motivation behind the story. In the last chapter, years later, a sort of begrudging sharing of information has been worked out but the two races basically leave each other alone, which is probably the most likely outcome. It’s interesting that subsequent MacLeod books have not gotten nominations, this may be the closest he’s come to writing something both accessible and popular. There are always lots of ideas in his books, but they tend to suffer more from what gets left out than what gets put in.

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