Two Views: Learning the World by Ken Macleod

Reviewed by Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland

Process Story by Niall Harrison

Learning the World US cover

Ken Macleod's previous novel, Newton’s Wake, was subtitled ‘a space opera.’ His latest, Learning the World, continues the game: the UK edition is ‘‘a novel of first contact,’’ while the US cover declares the book is ‘‘a scientific romance.’’ In each case, such a blatant statement of intent sets our expectations. The subtitles prime us to pay more attention to one of the two strands of the story than the other, and—in the case of the UK edition—to hear echoes of everything we think we know about how first contact should happen, from 2001 to Star Trek, ringing from the novel’s pages. And they catch us out. Macleod has a habit of playing with genre clichès (my favourite example is perhaps the Men in Black from Engine City), so we should be ready for sly subversions; but when they come, they never quite twist the way we expect them to.

The generation starship But The Sky, My Lady! The Sky! (a moniker surely worthy of Iain M. Banks’s Culture) is a vast, Ramaesque cylinder, and nearing the end of its mission. As the novel opens, The Sky is decelerating into the system it’s been hurtling towards for the past four thousand years. Thanks in part to massively extended lifespans, the on-board human society has not devolved or transcended or forgotten its origins. Indeed, a lot of the passengers—particularly the younger ones, who were literally born for these days—are ready and raring to colonise. One of the most vocal members of the Ship Generation is Atomic Discourse Gale, a precocious girl with an endearingly frank ‘biolog,’ a restless impatience with her elders, and a fascination with the world. When the second rock from the new sun turns out to be inhabited, Atomic’s first thoughts are not about how this affects the ship’s colonisation plans, but about what the first discovery of other intelligent life implies about humanity’s place in the universe. What can you say? She's young.

And while humans are looking down at that second rock, dithering, the rock’s inhabitants, who call it Ground, are looking right back up. Darvin, an astronomer at the University of Five Ravines in Seloh, is the first to notice the anomaly in the night sky. At first, he takes it for a comet, but working with his Gevorkian friend Orro he comes to understand its likely true nature. Darvin and Orro share a bond of scientific partnership and friendship reminiscent of that between Watson and Crick. However, they, and later Darvin’s partner Kwarive—who is in a number of ways the novel’s Rosalind Franklin—are gradually drawn into a web of intrigue as their world’s different nations start to react to the visitors. This stand of the narrative is presented as a translation, in a manner reminiscent of Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, and it is where the scientific romance comes to the fore. The point is not to demonstrate true otherness, but to present an alternate us, and ask which version we prefer. One of the particular strengths of the Ground thread is Macleod’s demonstration of how cultural assumptions and biological constraints might dictate scientific progress—or indeed progress more generally. In some areas, Darvin’s society has advanced faster than ours did, but in others they have been slower. An easy example is aeronautics. Darvin’s people are winged, and have difficulty envisioning other modes of flight, as useful as they might be, to the point where the implications of even breakthroughs such as the development of a wind tunnel are not fully realised. Writers spin ‘engineering tales’ featuring HTA (heavier-than-air) flight, but they remain so much handwaving. It is Orro who finally makes the conceptual breakthrough, when he realises that the power and lifting functions of a wing can—and must—be separated.

Heterogeneity, the assumption that everyone thinks differently, is important in Learning the World. The starship crew is no more united than the system’s natives; over the course of the novel the various factions splinter and realign in an entertainingly creative manner. Even the Ship Generation are internally divided, and the ship’s leaders do their best to exploit those fault lines. Intricate shifts of power and purpose are, of course, typical of Ken Macleod’s novels; one of his greatest gifts as a writer is his ability to dramatise the processes of society, and to do so with a deftness that ensures his novels are intensely readable yet not oversimplified. Significantly—and unlike, for example, Kim Stanley Robinson, whose moral thought experiments frequently have, at least in principle, right answers—Macleod revels in ambiguity. His novels are complex devil’s advocates. His characters do the wrong things for understandable reasons, or they do the right thing in the wrong way. They may have incomplete information, as when Atomic rashly makes a transcript of a council meeting available online. Almost always, these are characters who believe in something, and act with passion, whether in an attempt to protect their own interest, or to act in someone else’s. They are, in other words, as recognisably human as any of us, no matter that they are entirely displaced from both here and now. Atomic is, in this respect, a typical Macleod protagonist, and her biolog—also called ‘Learning the World’—becomes, over the course of the novel, a voice of the people, a forum for debate, and a call to action.

Macleod’s earlier novels have been justly acclaimed for this sort of demonstration of politics: the wrangling of ideologies, and the struggle of individuals to effect change. In Learning the World, however, Macleod also demonstrates the processes of science—or to put it another way, learning—in a way that he has not done before. I’ve already mentioned that this is a book in which everyone thinks differently, but the question of how to think, how to approach the world, also becomes vital. It is gentleman-science, an idealised version of a philosophy, with none of the messiness that bedevils its day to day implementation in the real world, but is nonetheless thought-provoking. Orro suggests that students learn the known and scientists the unknown (and philosophers, the unknowable), and in doing so articulates an understanding of what it means to grow up that informs much of the story. The journey towards maturity is perhaps the central theme of first contact tales, but while in some ways Learning the World is consistent with this overstory, in others it is in opposition to it. In contrast to stories from 2001 on out (and the shadow of the monolith hangs over this novel in more ways than one), the more advanced of the two species in this book is not superior, not unknowable, and certainly not parental; it is merely us, and we still have a lot of growing up to do. Atomic's own coming of age neatly marks and supports the development of this argument, and as usual she is the one who puts the question most directly: ‘‘Who are the children here?’’ (333)

Other parallels bind the two strands of the narrative together. It is striking that first contact is indirect: each society responds to the idea of the other, rather than the actuality. And each goes through similar-but-different stages of learning: discovery, hypothesis, further discovery, reassessment, reaction. There is a stately grace to the way in which the two societies collide, even while separated by millions of miles. Throughout, the dreamers debate the pragmatists; Atomic is gently chided for ‘metaphysical thinking,’ while her sometime boyfriend insists that ‘the way to learn the world is to look at the world’ (138). The most damaging decisions are made, as they almost always are, by those who think they have the answers, and who rush to intervene in situations they do not fully understand. As in all first contact stories, appearances are deceptive, but once again Macleod deploys the clichè knowingly, to point out that all sufficiently advanced choices are moral choices, and to makes us wonder: how far are we willing to let our leaders go, even if we accept that their ends are the right ones? Further, perhaps, than we might admit.

For a while, it seemed that Learning the World would be published as The New Intelligence. We should be grateful for the title we got, because it is better in many ways: it is more elegant, and more appropriate. It accurately announces a novel characterised by unpretentious sophistication, subtlety and wit—a novel that is a joy to read, and that may be Macleod’s most satisfying work to date.

A Proportional Response by Dan Hartland

Learning the World UK cover

There’s a wonderful passage in Gulliver’s Travels which consists almost entirely of naval jargon. Spirit-sails are taken in and fore-sheets hauled in a tumultuous procession of references that can mean nothing to any but the fully initiated. The passage builds to an exclusionary crescendo that lampoons much of the self-indulgent travel writing of the day. What is the point, Swift asks, of writing without communicating? The impenetrable nonsense comes at a point of some drama, and could have been better used to evoke atmosphere or character, or even—God forbid—some idea beyond the merely functional. Swift’s satire lets its subjects know that any fool can write for a pre-defined audience—but that in doing so you necessarily restrict your writing and become an easy target for derisive humour.

This may or may not remind you of something.

Ken Macleod’s Learning The World is the kind of SF book that does very well amongst fans. It picks up ideas from all your favourites, everyone from Bradbury to Vinge, and tries its best to say some things about process and post-modernism. But what it winds up doing is preaching a rather weak sermon to the baying choir. However tightly structured, gently written, and carefully plotted this novel is, it is the literary equivalent of a renovation that adds a dado rail to a room and pretends to have entirely transformed it. It’s a quiet—harmless even—piece of demagoguery.

In recent years, Jasper Fforde has earned himself a fair bit of money and a fairer bit of critical opprobrium for his Thursday Next series, which takes place in a parallel universe in which every hollow undergraduate literary in-joke you can imagine is actually real. Learning The World is a similar sort of book—its characters are given names fat with geek pith (our main character is called Atomic Discourse Gale, whilst her ‘care-mother’ is called Synchronic Narrative Storm); the Alien Space Bats, everyone’s favourite SF plot McGuffin, appear as actual characters; and, in a spin on the old Universal Translator shtick, the aliens write using Latin and call themselves ‘human.’

There are people who would argue that such winks are a nod to an ever-evolving discourse, an entry in the endless science fictional discussion of process, wonder, and potential. But, in truth, these sly nudges are simply what they are—puns that distract from the true scanty meat of this book. If science fiction can be the literature of ideas, the fiction of wonder, it can also be a self-conscious little kid worrying that its futures are silly and juvenile after all, and that the impossibility of prediction means that the only sensible way to approach the task is with tongue firmly in cheek. If we giggle while we write SF, perhaps no one will notice that we’ve given up on it, its potential, and ever speaking of broader ideas to that elusive wider audience.

In this atmosphere, it is easy to mistake the call-and-response of post-modern japery for real authorial discourse. But if we look at what Macleod really adds to the literature of first contact, it’s thin gruel indeed. In fact, we are merely taught the startling lesson that the alien is amongst us as well as beyond us, and that it is very difficult to predict how the alien will act and react. Is this really something we hadn’t been told before? Is the facile scientific process present in the book—characters look at photographs an awful lot and are sceptical about their own discoveries for a few paragraphs every now and then—really exploring the cultural aspects of scientific enquiry? Is Learning The World, in providing us the same old lessons with a few knowing jokes, really asking us about relativism in the post-modern world?

On the contrary, the truths of this banal conclusion seem lost in the easier game of genre incest. Neither the aliens (close to us in terms of technological development) nor the far-future humans (living unrecognisable lives transformed by technology and a colonising culture) are ever sufficiently other to convince. The societies Macleod builds are either too narrowly exposed for us to explore—we meet only academic or privileged Alien Space Bats—or fatally undermined when the millennia-old cultural imperative of non-violence is abandoned due to a timetabling problem. If we remove the pithy and the sly, the extrapolation or elaboration, and deal only with the book’s own creations, its own identity and theme—we’re left with a novel that tells us little we didn’t already know, albeit in a relatively entertaining way. This is the difference between making a genuine addition and merely doodling in the margins of what has gone before.

Learning The World is ultimately an old-fashioned pulp story with added emotional intelligence. In that sense, it’s an entertaining, nicely written update of something we might have read in a dog-eared Amazing anthology. I have no problem with this—it’s kind of fun. I enjoyed the book on this surface level—it’s an easy read, a bit of fluffy amusement. What Learning The World emphatically is not is a startling and original addition to the SF canon of first contact, or indeed any other on-going discussion within the genre. Macleod simply doesn’t mean it. You can’t contribute to a debate whilst also mugging at the audience every time you have an opportunity to make a funny. His process isn’t as good as Kim Stanley Robinson’s, his systems of alien thought aren’t as good as Ted Chiang’s, and the plot is never as exciting as a proper pulp story. There is, simply put, nothing new to excite us here, just ironic reflection on a blinkered selection of words we have already read.

You can do the reference and homage thing, and you can do it whilst adding something new to the pot (Ian McDonald did it brilliantly with River of Gods). But we don’t have that sort of important novel here—we just have a bit of frustrating fun, at best a synthesis of previous thought. Macleod is loudly and showily belaying the fore-down haul, splicing the mainbrace, and reheating the same old dilithium crystals.


Niall Harrison is senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons. His reviews have also appeared in Interzone, Foundation, and Vector. He blogs at http://coalescent.livejournal.com/, and still hates writing bios.

Dan Hartland is a freelance creative thinker figuring out what to think. A writer and musician of the inverted commas variety, he splits his time equally between these two things and procrastination. He comes to science fiction from outside the genre, and is a little too happy to remain a gadfly.