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Volume 24, Number 3, Spring 2006

Learning the World

By Ken MacLeod

Tor Books, 2005, $24.95 , ISBN 0765313316
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Learning the World is Ken MacLeod’s trying something new. His two series and his standalone Newton’s Wake, despite their variety of themes and settings, established a characteristic pattern for a “Ken MacLeod novel”: written in a dense prose style, filled with subtle jokes, and thematically concerned on one hand with the implications of libertarian and Marxist ideas, and on the other with life in the neighborhood of a Vingean singularity and with transhumanist speculations. He offered his readers the same kind of intoxication that early cyberpunk provided, but with a more sophisticated view of politics and economics. In contrast, Learning the World is much more like a classic science fiction novel. It may make MacLeod accessible to a wider readership. It’s our good fortune that in doing this, he hasn’t stopped giving us brilliant ideas and interesting worlds.

In fact, one model for MacLeod’s narratives seems to be the classic Heinlein juveniles. His primary viewpoint character is a girl in her early teens living on an interstellar colony ship that’s about to enter a new solar system. This provides him with an elegant way of avoiding idiot lecture: as Atomic Discourse Gale grows up, she learns more about her world, and the reader learns with her.

What makes this story more interesting is that her world is not stable. As the starship reaches its destination, its crew and passengers discover unmistakable evidence of an intelligent race on one of the new system’s planets. This faces them with conflicts of many sorts: over how to deal with an unprecedented encounter; over the ethical shortcomings of the alien civilization, and what can legitimately be done about them; and over the disruption of their own plans for colonization. Suddenly there are conflicts of interest between the crew, the older generation passengers, and their children, who grew up in the expectation of having an entire solar system to lay claim to. This part of the story is as dramatic as anything MacLeod has ever written—and leads up to a clear acknowledgment of Heinlein’s influence, in the two lines by “Noisy” Rhysling at the end of Chapter 17, which, impressively, are even more emotionally charged here than in Heinlein’s original story.

The aliens themselves are extremely well portrayed, in a style that recalls Vernor Vinge’s portrayal of the Tines in A Fire upon the Deep or the Spiders in A Deepness in the Sky. MacLeod gives the reader not only alien bodies and minds, but alien cultures and an alien science, with both parallels to and differences from human science. The reader sees one of these imagined cultures readying itself for war, with both armed forces and an intelligence service ready to use new technology as a weapon against rival cultures—and then discovering that it is not alone in the world, as if the Air Force UFO investigations had found real aliens in our solar system. And the alien cultures have features that disturb or even horrify the human colonists.

One of these features is a long-established practice of slavery, involving, not other members of the aliens’ own species, but a more primitive species. This is one of the themes that libertarians will find sympathetic in this book: the humans regard slavery with entire abhorrence, and are divided only on how to put a stop to it. MacLeod also shows a long-established body of law for the private appropriation and exploitation of bodies in space, complete with futures markets in asteroids, comets, terrestrial planets, and other sorts of bodies. This is a logical outgrowth of the idea of colonizing and industrializing space, but in the context of present-day Earth law and politics it’s a radical, and radically libertarian idea. Finally, the political institutions of the ships are founded on libertarian ideas, starting with each ship having an explicit Contract to which its crew and passengers must agree when they sign on; these people’s social contract is an actual contract. Ideas that libertarians cherish are woven into the substance of this future human culture—which doesn’t prevent its people from turning against freedom to coercion in a crisis, such as the one that drives this novel’s plot.

MacLeod has always been a thought-provoking writer. But in Learning the World he also achieves an elegant simplicity of design and style, expressing his transhumanist ideas and social speculations in the form of classic science fiction. This book deserves a wider readership than MacLeod has found up to now.

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