Sunday, March 19, 2006

Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod's new book, Learning the World, is a good first contact story. I didn't like it as much as I've enjoyed his previous stories, but it's still pretty good. Our distant descendents are spreading throughout the galaxy, and have been doing so for thousands of years without encountering anything more advanced than algae, mold, and lichen. There's no FTL travel, but there is serious life extension, so ships are crewed by two generations of travelers: the Founders, and the ship generation. The starship we're focused on has the luck to be the first to encounter an alien race.

The aliens are approximately bat-like flying mammals, though scaled up to human dimensions. They are just reaching their own renaissance, and by happenstance, astronomers cataloging comets catch a glimpse of the starship as it's decelerating into the solar system. This gives them the opportunity to notice the subtle signs of their presence even though the new arrivals try to remain hidden.

The politics onboard the starship involve struggles between factions who want to exploit the planetary system as their plans called for in the absence of intelligent life, and those who think it might be better to hold off and ensure that the first contact results in amicable relations. Complicating all this is that the ship generation has grown up in a post-conflict environment. They understand that there's far more to gain by trade than conquest, and assume that everyone else knows it too. The planet-bound creatures (they call themselves human, so there's no good term for them) have reached a level of sophistication to realize that trade is beneficial, but they don't dare assume that starfarers know it as well. The starfarers bumble in their attempts to unobtrusively survey the planet, and the planet dwellers interpret the signs as preparations for an invasion.

There were several parts of the story that rang wrong for me. A third of the way through the book, one of the ship generation realizes that an encounter so earlier in our expansion through space, and with a race at such a similar level of development implies that intelligence is likely to be ubiquitous. She tries to start a discussion of this point on her blog (I kid you not!) and get people to consider the implications for their approach to expansion, but one member of the Founder generation pooh-poohs the idea, and the subject is dropped until the last two pages of the story. In the crowds I hang out with, this subject has been a hot topic for a while. I can't believe that the subject would disappear in a society as sophisticated as this one is portrayed to be.

I was continually struck, as I watched the planet-dwellers interact and react, by how human they seemed. MacLeod would occasionally point out how, being flyers, they thought tactically in three dimensions; they perch rather than sitting, and do other things to reflect their heritage, but their thinking wasn't at all alien. Maybe I noticed because I'm currently reading (in the background) C. J. Cherryh's Chanur series. There are several alien species, and they're all alien. There seems to be consistent motivation, but they don't act like or think like people. MacLeod's aliens are people in bat-suits. You can see the same effects when the ship generation modify themselves to be more suited to the zero-g areas of the ship. They have different abilities, and react naturally for the shape they've taken on, but they think like people. Oh, well.

I did appreciate the way MacLeod had the characters on the ship dealing explicitly with futures contracts (and prediction markets?) based on changing events. It was clear that planning for development when the crew arrived at a new starsystem was a process of preparing business plans and presenting them to wealthy investors who would chose which opportunities to invest in.

The aspect of the book that caused some discussion in the LFS' finalist committee, considering this book as a candidate for the Prometheus award, was the way the ship cultures imposed their views on the planetary civilization's. The bat creatures have a related species, the trudge, that they use as beasts of burden. There's a smattering of discussion among the bats as to whether the trudge are intelligent enough that this is akin to slavery. As far as I could tell, they could be anywhere from oxen to gorillas. They didn't seem as smart as dogs. But some on the ships are incensed anyway; it's not even clear that they've looked beyond the fact that the starfarers can't distinguish the trudges from the civilized ones. They decide to prohibit slave-holding anyway. But by the time they make the prohibition, they have, apparently as an accidental side-effect of their attempts to hijack local lower creatures in order to communicate and watch the planet-bound, uplifted some of the trudges to sentience. So the question of whether it was slavery or domestication is moot. grumble.

Even with all these complaints, I enjoyed the story. I wouldn't classify it as strongly libertarian, but it did make the list of Prometheus finalists. (I voted for it.) If you're interested, the list of finalists for 2005 (already posted on a couple of other blogs) is as follows:

  • Chainfire by Terry Goodkind
  • Learning the World by Ken MacLeod
  • 47 by Walter Mosley
  • The Hidden Family by Charles Stross
  • The Black Arrow by Vin Suprynowicz
  • RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone by Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman
Yes, that's six finalists rather than the usual five.

And the finalists for Hall of Fame are:

  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • As Easy as A.B.C. by Rudyard Kipling
  • It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The awards will be presented at the WorldCon in LA in August.

Filed in:

No comments: