Learning the World, Ken Macleod

Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31331-6

Stories of first contact between humanity and extraterrestrial civilizations have been a staple of the Science Fiction genre ever since the very beginning of the genre. It’s one of SF’s central myth: what happens when different mindsets meet. While the classic “First contact” story usually involved the aliens coming to us (“Take us to your leaders! No, wait, let’s land on the White House front lawn!”), it’s not rare to see the scenario played in reverse: In Vernor Vinge’s Hugo Award-winning A Deepness in the Sky, for instance, a nomadic human delegation encountered the aliens on their own turf, precipitating a technological revolution.

For better or for worse, Ken MacLeod’s Hugo-nominated Learning the World has a lot of superficial similarities with Vinge’s novel: It, too is a novel of first contact in which the humans are the visiting party. It, too, features a brand of humanity that is almost unrecognizable to us stock humans. It, too, takes a keen interest in the social consequences of first contact. (The title itself comes from the first obvious lesson to be gained from First Contact, and what it means for basic world-view assumptions.)

But Learning the World is a novel that comes five years after A Deepness in the Sky: It’s much shorter and has a different agenda in mind when comes the time to confront the issues of First Contact. High on its list of priorities is a set of reflections on the Fermi paradox and what it can possibly mean. As a piece of twenty-first century SF, it’s fluent in economics (the humans of the novel think nothing of describing their interactions in financial terms, with a constant impact of how they act and perceive their actions) and is very familiar with the accumulated mass of other First Contact scenarios. (Heck, the industrial-era alien characters are big fans of “engineering fiction”) It doesn’t innovate as much as it revisits a familiar scenario with the latest lingo and plenty of conceptual cross-breeding: the visiting humans, for instance, are genetically modified immortals traveling on a generation starship. As with MacLeod’s other novels, it’s often the details that make the story worthwhile: tantalizing hints of “fast burn” civilizations and of a society indissociable from ultra-capitalism. There are more than a few good laughs as the First Contact scenario escapes all careful planning. Heck, a good chunk of the novel is made of, essentially, blog posts.

Unfortunately, all of these good bits can’t amount to a spectacular novel. For such a short book, Learning the World is thin on plot: Not much happens in the first half, and the alien viewpoint chapters can often feel superfluous. Most of the novel’s truly interesting material comes in the last few pages, and even then they roll in a casual “hey, isn’t this interesting?” fashion. Heck, there’s an overall lack of danger, of passion from this book: It ends up passing through as a gentle first cozy contact novel featuring entirely rational characters without much at stake. (“Why, yes, we will break up our society… but everything has to be done for tea-time”) Indeed, some of the final plot developments take on a “ha, aren’t humans silly?” quality for which I’ve never had much use. Looking back upon the entire book, I remain surprised at how so much good material can feel so inconsequential: Is it worth asking if a more dynamic writer would be able to make more out of those same ideas? Or should I feel disappointed for feeling so disappointed?

I’ve had problems with MacLeod’s fiction before (it’s no accident if I hadn’t read anything of his since The Sky Road), and if Learning the World is a bit more accessible than his other books, it still doesn’t give me much reason to be enthusiastic about his fiction. Simply put, Learning the World has the impact of a minor work, with the slight advantage of being a completely standalone novel. MacLeod is a frighteningly smart guy, but this novel reads almost as a half-sketched first draft, with potential for more but a weak execution. It’s been nominated for a Hugo; great news for MacLeod, but there are at least two other better books on the ballot. I’m glad I read it, but no more.

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