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3.8 out of 5 stars23
3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 10 September 2005
As a sci-fi fan, I'm often asked what books someone who wasn't a sci-fi fan but wanted to check it out might read. Usually these are books by Anne Macaffery, Kevin J Anderson or David Eddings, mainly because these give you a relatively low-key read. After all, you have aliens and spaceships to deal with - isn't that enough?
For myself, however, I like Alistair Reynolds, Stephen Erikson, or Iain M Banks. These authors are anything but a low-key read. I rarely find a book that can cover both bases at once. Learning The World, however, does just that.
This is a book about meeting an alien species for the first time, and how an unprepared civilisation would deal with that. Humanity has spread to other star systems and met with absoultely no alien species at all. Zip. The Fermi paradox remains intact.
So when a ship names But The Sky, My Lady! The Sky! (yes, someone's been reading their Iain M Banks books, haven't they?) reaches its destination, it discovers an alien species. Meanwhile, the aliens notice a strange object in the sky. This story follows both sides as they observe each other, speculate on each other's motives, values, morals, and, ultimately, interact, as well as how each society deals with the presence of aliens in the same system.
It doesn't really concentrate on the technical or scientific side - descriptions of the ship are deliberatly vague, and the system is simplistic (one planet of each class?). This is all deliberate, because this story isn't about the technology that allows you to travel from system to system, nor is about the planets you find once you get there. It's about two cultures which thought they were alone in the universe meeting each other for the first time.
In places it gets political, especially in the sections covering the ship, but never overly so. It remains humourous, engaging, and thoughtful, and the characters are characters you could imagine actually existing.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest in sci-fi.
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on 14 April 2006
I like hard sci-fi first contact novels and this is one of them. A human colony ship in the future is approaching its target solar system and discovers and alien civilization already there. The humans then check their laws and rule books to see what they are allowed to do. Much UN style dithering follows. Meanwhile on the alien planet, they work out that a strange object entering their system appears to be powered. Curiousity and mild panic ensues.

It's a strange novel really. The aliens, as another reviewer says, are more human in nature, if not appearance, than the actual future humans. And just because the aliens are far less advanced - early 20th century tech level - doesn't mean that they're stupid and when both sides finally meet, this becomes obvious. It's also interesting to note what the flight enabled aliens think of the flightless humans physical appearance.

To be honest, this wasn't as good a novel as I hoped but it was a good read and not too long.
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**** spoilers ****

We all know that the old alien invasion cliche really has been done to death. Macleod cleverly turns it on its head though, by making humankind of the far-distant future, more alien than the rather endearing bat people, whose homeland the human pioneers are eyeing up greedily.

This is very clever stuff, which reminded me in places of the grandiose space opera of Iain Banks (high praise indeed). You may find, as did I, that you rush through the "human" chapters in anticipation of savouring the generally more fascinating alien chapters. The seeming paradox of an intelligent and compassionate species still relying on the horrors of slave labour, is skillfully explored through Macleod's splendid characters. Orro, Darvin, Kwarive and even the delightful Trudge Kit drive the plot along at a decent pace that will surely maintain any sci-fi fan's interest. The only downside, IMHO, is that the human politicising felt a tad laboured at times, and the long-awaited face to face contact occurs very late in the book and could have been explored to greater depth. Quibbles aside, this is a very worthwhile read that I enjoyed immensely and have no hesitation in recommending to you!
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on 14 August 2005
Mankind has been expanding through the galaxy for 15,000 years. We appear to be alone and we've lost track of just how far we've come. There are thousands of human stars and quadrillions of human beings. A generation ship (there is no FTL) setting out from the edge of the expansion finds something utterly unexpected at their destination star: indigenous aliens.
Problem is, they can't go home again, they can't easily go on, and they cannot reasonably stay. Meanwhile, the aliens aren't as dumb as they look.
Both a morality play and a study in hubris, and a new treatment on Heinlein's generation ship concept -- a debt that Ken acknowledges in a most satisfying way.
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on 9 October 2006
Ken Macleod is an exceptionally good writer. Having been lent a copy of his first book, I rushed out and bought all his others. I love his use of politics, near and alternative futures, his characterisation, and the fact that he can tell a good story in a succinct way (unlike some SF writers who feel that a book has to be at least 5 hundred pages long).

That is why I am so disappointed by this volume. If this had been the first book of Ken's that I had read, I would probably never have touched his other works (much to my loss). There is nothing really about this book that is comparable to his other works - the political and social dimensions are under-developed, the thrust of story is rather mundane, and the characterisation is definitely not up to standard. The strengths of the other books (apart from the already mentioned positives), is that Ken is very good at grounding his works in a level of plausibility by using geography and touches of the present to create a continuity to the future).

I'm sorry to be so negative but the writer is capable of so much better than this. I'm going back to re-read is other books (again!!)
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on 24 March 2007
A rather engaging novel, if not too visionary, this is a interesting exploration of the tensions and troubles brought on by impending first contact. Read it as Sci-fi and you'll be disappointed; it has none of the epic quality of Alastair Reynolds's books, and little of the (black) humour or toys of Iain M. Banks. Read it as any old paperback and it's a good study of the troubles of living together in a multi-cultural world, transposed onto an unexpectedly occupied solar system.
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on 5 June 2006
You've all read them. Seem the TV shows. Watched the movies. Heck, you've probably played the games too. Alien invasion stories are hardly a new thing in sci-fi - it's one of the oldest and most-used cliches in the genre. But then just when you think it's been done to death, Ken MacLeod does something like this. Learning The World takes a bunch of humans off on a trip across the stars. In this book, this is nothing new - countless groups have made similar trips and turned uninhabited worlds into, well, inhabited ones. Oh, there was life out there, but nothing you could have a conversation with.

But then this particular group - crew of the generation ship But The Sky My Lady! The Sky! (overtones of IM Banks there, perhaps?) - reach their destination to discover radio signals. Not the random static that gets thrown out by any star, but regular, actual radio broadcasts. There's a civilisation already there. Meanwhile, an astronomer on the destination planet looks up to see that the strange comet he's been tracking is doing things that average self-respecting comets should not be doing. It begins to dawn on him that the thing in the sky is artificial.

This story is about how the two societies cope with this first contact. How does a society of humans who've been travelling all their lives come to terms with the fact that their destination planet is already spoken for? How does the primitive society on the planet deal with the concept that there are other worlds out there in the universe, and they're about to come knocking?

To this end, the book largely ignores technical and scientific details and concentrates wholly on the social and political aspects of first contact. And it does that with extraordinary skill, presenting a balanced view of the mistakes that both sides might make. If you're used to the plucky humans fighting off the evil alien invaders and fancy slightly different take on the subject, or you are interested in first contact, or you just want to read an unusual and effective sci-fi novel, then this book is for you.
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on 19 September 2005
The story feels like a combination of early Arthur C. Clarke and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The aliens are about as alien as your next door neighbor, but the future humans seem pretty strange, (in a good way), so I guess it balances out. Over all I liked the story and would recommend it. MacLeod does make you think when you read his works.
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I can't pretend to understand the physics let alone the metaphysics that underlie this intriguing and entertaining novel set aeons in the future and therefore with little or no relevance to our time on this particular Earth, but proper Science Fiction (is this Space Opera?), takes you out of yourself and sets up a whole new premise. For instance, how would you like to be a species that has wings, hangs upside down in its roost to sleep, is just as clever as we were in, say, Victorian times, and able to understand that its current practice of keeping slaves (known as Trudges) is morally questionable?

The human race has evolved in 'Learning The World', many thousands of years from now, and due to over-population is roaming the universe looking for land to populate. Humans are now immortal and the ship-founders are ancient, but don't look it. Their incursion into other worlds is guided by strict ethical rules. Mostly, they have found, signs of life are rare, but there are some planets with the basis for settlement. They are peaceful settlers and capable of building the infrastructures needed to settle on a new planet without disturbing the low-level life-signs that exist. Coming upon a planet such as The Destiny Star, they are at pains to explain their peaceful purposes, but will the bat creatures listen? And after hundreds of years traversing the galaxies, will the latest batch of young adult pioneer settlers lose patience with the dance of courtesy they are obliged to observe before setting out their claim?

This is a fascinating and rewarding story, well worth the suspension of disbelief. The characterisation is somewhat formulaic, but nevertheless, the combination of technical inventiveness and the alien-contact scenario makes this an enjoyable read.
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on 28 November 2006
A great easy read: well-imagined, and nicely planned, with a unique twist in that much of it is told from the point of view of an alien civilisation.

However, the alien civilisation might be bats (literally!) but they're really like quaint middle-class pseudo-Victorians, polite and well-meaning. There's a hint of menace in the possibility of war, but if humans truly do meet another species, this sounds like the best possible scenario.

On the other hand, it's good to see an SF author not resting on the easy plot device of the "wormhole". The humans in this story travel between the stars the hard way: the trip took four hundred years.

A great story, and one I'd recommend to younger readers, too.
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