Monday, May 21, 2007

Ken MacLeod "Learning The World": book review

I read this book because it was on the FACT reading list, but ended up not going to the reading group meeting, because my car broke down. So, instead of a discussion report, this is just my opinion of the book.

I liked "Learning The World".

An unusual take on a First Contact story

It was an unusual take on a First Contact story, at least to me. It was unusual that a highly technically advanced civilization (so advanced their spaceship is powered by an engine that creates universes in its wake) would be afraid of a much more primitive society (bat-people) that does not even have spaceflight. Despite the apparent power imbalance, the high-tech society has reasons to fear the low-tech society. This kept me interested in the story. The bat-people storyline was more interesting to me than the ship-people storyline. The Darvin and Orro characters were more vivid than any of the humans. I guess I didn't find any of the humans very convincing. For example, I did not understand how Atomic, the teenage protagonist, became a highly influential figure of her generation, so much so that the majority of her generation went along with a certain radical idea she promoted simply because she was the one pushing that idea. I understand that her blog, or "biolog", was widely read on the ship, but nothing she said there was so brilliant as to make her a very influential personality.

I could much better relate to the bat-people, who were more sympathetic characters than any of the ship-people. Yet their biology, mainly the fact that they were capable of flight, made their culture unusual to just the right degree to be intriguing. Their daily life was portrayed with enough convincing details that the reader could see they were alien, yet they remained understandable. What I didn't find too convincing was that their state of technology was almost identical to ours in the beginning of the 20th century. (Except they had television and we didn't at that time; but we had heavier-than-air flight and they did not.) I was almost waiting for this coincidence to be explained at the end: for example, was the bat-people society visited in the past by human space explorers who brought their technologies with them? If not, perhaps this coincidence reflected the central message of the book? The thesis of the book seemed to be that intelligent life is incredibly common in the universe, so maybe the author was trying to say that among billions of intelligent worlds there are likely to be some whose history mirrors one another very closely?

Not so credible science

Still... regarding this thesis, I don't think the author made a compelling case for it. Some characters in this book contemplate Fermi paradox, but they don't explain it very well. At the end where Atomic mentions the theory of universe creation by an evolutionary process, it does not explain the Fermi paradox either. I've read about the evolutionary theory of universe creation before, but the version that Atomic presents seems to have a fallacy in it. It's too bad that MacLeod did not elaborate this part further. If the fundamental questions about universe creation were addressed in more depth, this book could have been very good instead of merely not bad.

Cool character names, idioms

There's something to be said about the writing style. I got a kick out of the characters' names, such as Atomic Discourse Gale or Synchronic Narrative Storm. Since I always struggle to come up with names for my characters, I was envious that Ken McLeod found a method to generate an unlimited number of cool character names. :-) And the metaphors, idioms and turns of phrase used by both cultures are carefully constructed to reflect the alien realities of the two civilizations. The bat people's idioms revolve around wings and flight. The alienness of the ship-people's perspective was captured by little observations made by various ship-humans when they first see the bat-people's planet: how weird it is to live in a place where the horizon curves downward, not upward (as in the ship), and don't they feel unsafe living in a place that does not have a "ceiling", that's wide open and "exposed" to space? But the observation that topped it all was something a ship-human said when she saw trees for the first time and compared them to an array of parabolic antennas. Or something like that. Don't quote me on that as I may be misremembering. I wish I could find that place in the book, but I can't.

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