Science Fiction Book Review

Learning the World

(2005) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, 17.99, hrdbk, 338pp, ISBN 1-841-49343-0


The Earth-launched generation ship, the sunliner But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky!, after a four-hundred year journey is finally entering the destination system it set out for. Nowhere in space has alien life been discovered, so the ship-born generations are not really expecting to encounter anything more developed than lichens or bacteria, yet the detection of radio signals calls for a re-think. Perhaps the ship has been overtaken by a robot probe? So, naturally, they send probes of their own to the planet where the signals have been discovered. For centuries the crew have been planning their economic exploitation of the new system, their internal 'stock market' largely depending on Futures (just as current Earthly stock exchanges deal in Futures and Options - effectively risky gambles based on future conditions), but when they discover that the planet is inhabited by an intelligent species, itself moving into an age of electricity, radio and powered flight, all bets are off. Of the planet's inhabitants a physicist and an astronomer detect the sunliner, at first mistaking it for a comet, but then detecting the fact that it is decelerating. They reach the obvious conclusion and the scene is set for First Contact. With economic piracy breaking out on the ship and a faction of passengers wishing to secede from the others, this might be a very messy First Contact indeed...

I have, talking of messes, a very messy history with Ken's work. I enjoyed greatly his first four novels, from The Star Fraction to The Sky Road, but hated his "Engines of Light" trilogy, only to be thrilled again by Newton's Wake, so you can imagine that I approached this novel with somewhat mixed feelings. Adding to my confusion I met Ken for the first time this year (at the 2005 Eastercon in Hinckley, Leicestershire) and I genuinely like the bloke, whose SF 'heart' is in the right place. But I have to say, despite all that, that this book bored me so much in places that I found myself skim-reading chunks of it (especially the expositions on the economics of exploiting a solar system) and that I very nearly didn't bother to finish it at all. Those who know me will understand just how serious that is. I always finish books, even ones I hate, on the grounds that it's just unfair to judge a book unless you're willing to get to the end to see if the author is going to surprise you and maybe turn your judgement on its head. I did finish the book, but Ken didn't surprise me. My recurring major thought all the way through was, "For f$ck's sake get on with it!" It just plodded and plodded and plodded. Not one character caught my imagination, and a lot of it seemed like a bunch of talking heads who would be out-evolved before they came to any decisions. The aliens were, to my mind, a bit "off the rack", with an unconvincing avian evolution that rarely made sense (Ken's physics is better than his biology by a long way; sadly his economics is better than both). I just can't find it in myself to recommend this book, much as I'd like to be able to do so.

Tony Chester

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