Thursday, June 08, 2006
Title:Learning The World
Author: Ken MacLeod
Orro has been working on developing flying machines. Which has earned him scorn from his peers - after all, if god had intended us to build flying machines he wouldn't have given us wings. Darvin is interested though and does all he can to help Orro along. Though one night returning to his own lab and going through the latest slides from the lab he finds an anomaly. At first he thinks it’s a comet, but with the help of Orro's maths, they are able to determine that it is something different altogether. Studying all the data gathered through history it is clear that the number of green stars has increased over the centuries. With that the object they are seeing is slowing as it comes into their area of space, and that its trajectory comes from the green stars. There can be only one conclusion - aliens! But before they can say too much the secret services are recruiting them and signing them to secrecy - they must have all the information they can before the aliens arrive.
But The Sky My Lady, The Sky is a world ship. A colossal ship that travels through space, developing a world inside, training a new generation of humans in all the skills necessary for colonising new worlds. Adding new green planets to the string of Civil Worlds that humanity have added to their domain. Four hundred years they have travelled, and now they reach their journey's end. Except that the anomalous electrical signal coming from one of planets round the Destiny Star clearly aren't natural. In millennia of human culture, through a string of colonised planets, we have never encountered intelligent life. Till now.
Learning The World is the 9th novel by Ken MacLeod, which seems incredible, his debut novel The Star Fraction doesn't seem to have come out that long ago. But regardless, he has been writing steadily, pretty much having a new novel published once a year for the last decade. His first handful of novels were retrospectively put under the banner of The Fall Revolution, his next three novels were a deliberate trilogy - The Engines of Light. So that his previous novel, Newton's Wake, was his first really stand alone work. Reading Learning The World I did find myself wondering whether it was the start of something new or stand alone. Given the way it progresses I had a real suspicion that it was going to end in a cliff hanger. In the end though it is stand alone, which is for the best, as MacLeod is always at his best when he is tackling something fresh and from the beginning.
On the other hand, the way Learning The World gathers speed, only to be given a quick resolution does actually make it a little anti-climactic. Also, on reflection, many of the characters/situations could have been explored with more depth. The title of this novel - Learning The World - comes from a biolog; the text based documenting of life on But The Sky by one of the youngster preparing for colonisation. But despite the fact that the novel alternates between the planet and the ship, and every ship chapter has extracts from Atomic Discourse Gale's biolog, she doesn't actually feature that much as a character - not nearly as much as she could have.
Other than that Learning The World steams ahead at full speed. Providing a First Contact experience from both sides of the contact. Following the ideas of science/learning and how they expand/develop - especially with an impetus like contact to drive them. At the same time it wouldn't be a MacLeod novel without a bit of politics - adequately covered by the planet side secret police and the struggles between crew, first born and ship born on the ship itself. The result is a little bit like China Mieville's Perdido Street Station meets Robert Reed's Marrow. Overall a fun read that had me charging towards the end, even if it was an anti-climax, it was still neat enough.
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