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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Learning the World by Ken MacLeod

Learning the World by Ken MacLeod. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-765-31331-7

Another new author (to me, that is), and another home run! Just like my previous entry, Crystal Rain, Learning the World does not chart new territory in terms of plot and setting, but it makes standard SciFi themes new and real again. This time, the theme is a generation starship finally reaching its goal, only to find that one of the planets in the system is inhabited by sentient life.

The story is actually told from both perspectives—the humans on board ship, and the “aliens” on the ground. Although just beginning to enter an industrial era, the natives are more clever and resourceful than their visitors initially give them credit for. Their astronomers detect the incoming ship, built on asteroid scale, and also discover the miniaturized spy-eyes that the humans send down.

The folks on board the ship have quite a struggle among themselves, and their philosophy, their ways of thinking about themselves and the universe, for up until now, although spreading throughout the galaxy, they have not encountered any previous sentient life, and are not really prepared to deal with it. The entire current generation of young people have spent their entire lives and training preparing to inhabit the entire system, planets, asteroids, what have you, and now some on board think they should simply head on out to another system, rather than risk contaminating this one with their presence.

One slightly unique aspect to the story is the way parts of it are told through what is essentially a blog, a public, online journal, written by one of the new young generation. Not that journals or letters haven't been featured in previous fiction, science or other, but not quite this way. Only the current blogosphere found in real life these days could have inspired this particular approach to telling the story.

Once again, however, invariably, indubitably, just as in Crystal Rain, it is the people themselves, both the human and the alien, and their personal stories, successfully developed by the author in such a way that we care about them and what happens to them, that makes the book a good read. The story line, the plot, is also important, but if there is anything disappointing about this book, it is the relatively anticlimactic ending. Nevertheless, highly recommended for all SciFi fans.


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