Re: Learning the World

Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod, seems like an appropriate place to start a blog, since the book opens with an entry of the biolog of Atomic Discourse Gale, as she tells how she climbs to the summit of her world and meets Constantine the Oldest Man.

This book is such fun! I was totally charmed right from the beginning, from the star ship filled with fractious genetically engineered humans, to its cosmogonic drive pooping out universes, to the world they arrive at, populated by bat people.

The bat people feel somewhere between steampunk Victorians and Gernsbackian pulp. The spacefarers are more like contemporary SF characters that populate worlds filled with nano and AI and all those other toys. I liked how everyone thinks of themselves as “human”, but there’s no one in the book like you and me.

I really enjoyed the central conceit of a retelling of a 50s alien invasion movie. McLeod throws in some reversals to try to confound your expections. For instance, our own alien invasion stories usually posit them as the best way to unite the human race. Supposedly, the bat people’s “engineering tales” predicted social breakdown if aliens arrived, but they united in the face of an outside threat, just like you’re supposed to. A more successful twist was the way the invading aliens turned on each other and broke apart.

The bat people have some, um, habits that are a little off-putting to the human reader, but most are as excusable as a tiger killing prey. They themselves feel some qualms, but apparently they never had the equivalent of our own popular social-reformers novelists, like Dickens or Hugo or Beecher Stowe. I suppose their “engineering tales” are also leaving out the social satire function of SF. But then I could be thinking about it too much.

What’s not so forgiveable is using their nearest relatives as work animals. (Never might the implausibility of this; our own nearest relatives are completely unsuitable.) This is where the book toys with animal rights and slavery, which makes it a bit less fun. When it becomes apparent that the “beasts” are nearly as smart as the bat people, the invaders see them as slaves, and choose to intervene. For a while, it looked like there would be a slave revolt, and things would get really serious. Is it blood-thirsty of me to admit that I felt disappointed that the revolt gets averted? Curious that (as I recall) the only person whose skin color is mentioned is dark-skinned, and that he is the one who provides the impetus for this.

In sum, a cracking good tale that got me thinking.

Tomorrow: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.