Learning the World

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Ken MacLeod

Published: 2005

Reviewed: 2006-02-16

Publisher: Tor

As I began reading this novel, I was struck by a startling sense of
deja vu. I had read this plot before, in Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness
in the Sky." Humans come, in a gigantic slower-than-light starship
and encounter the first alien species ever discovered. The lordly,
high-tech humans try to figure out what to do with the poor,
strife-ridden aliens and can't reveal themselves because, after all,
that would be a terrible thing to do until they get their policies all
straight. Yet the aliens are not as dim as the humans think they

Same thing. Same brilliant alien scientists involved in the war
effort. Same involvement of alien intelligence services. Very
different humans---Mr. MacLeod's humans are enlightened, terribly long
lived, and part of a coherent and peaceful ever expanding human
sphere, while Vinge's are from warring camps of a perpetually
fragmented and not very advanced humanity. There's certainly no
plagiarism here---Mr. MacLeod brings a lot to the table that Vinge
couldn't---but I wish I knew whether it was convergent evolution or
idea diffusion. Certainly, the themes explored are good questions
that anyone thinking hard in a lonely-humans-meet-aliens scenario
might come to. They also both have an excellent sense of information
management and code rot, which tickles my programmer fancy without any
real justification.

"Learning the World" is a very well crafted book, with a good tempo
and good description. A highly alien human society and sympathetic
yet clearly alien aliens. And the fact that I knew where it was
going, for the most part, didn't detract from the delight of getting

Mr. MacLeod also puts real depth into his world development, which is
something I really appreciate in an author. You read through the book
and get a sense of the society, yet are left hankering after all these
tag ends which are dangled and talked about but not explained well.
Like, what exactly is it that human civilization does that turns stars
green? There's a lot of clear possibilities, but it's just not quite
resolved, and the one I thought it was going to be early on was ruled
out fairly clearly by side remarks halfway through. I like it when
I'm left wanting to know more when a story is over.

I couldn't help feel, however, that the book was a vehicle for the
cosmological sting that turns up at the end. It felt fairly odd and
tacked on, not fitting well with the rest of the story at all. In
general, I suppose, my main complaint with the book is that the ending
felt rushed. I mean, it followed a reasonable trajectory and all,
coming to an end shortly after an action-packed (and very strange)
climax, but then... then it goes to the epilogue and this weird little
idea tacked on (well-grounded in background, of course---that craft is
not lacking---just out of step with the flow of the book in a way I
found jarring). After watching two interesting sets of characters
presented throughout the rest of the book, I was interested to see how
they'd interact, and didn't get to.

And I suppose that really leads to my other complaint about the book.
Nobody grows. They learn lots of new things, and they do lots of new
things, but we never really learn how anybody feels about anything.
Lots of cerebration, no pangs of deep emotion. Maybe that's how it's
supposed to be, but I was left with a feeling of watching a historical
drama rather than living historical events. It was always quite clear
that I, as the reader, was not expected to be involved.

It seems strange to me that I've spent this much time complaining
about things in a book that, frankly, I enjoyed quite a lot. I think
that's probably a good sign, so far as the book is
concerned---Mr. MacLeod is capable of creating an excellent and
compelling enough story that I enjoyed it and became involved enough
with his universe to start picking nits. He's missing some
dimensions, but he plays to his strengths, and does well. If you read
this book expecting a grand historical drama, an interesting vision of
societies, and some fun cosmological speculation, you'll be quite
satisfied. Just don't expect anybody to fall in love.