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Learning the World
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lil_shepherd
'Learning the World' by Ken Macleod.

I loved this book. If you want to read it on its surface level it is still a cracking novel of first contact, with some great aliens, environments, real science and wild speculation, and it moves along at top clip.

However... for anyone who has wanted to see Lazarus Long (or any other super-competent hero from Heinlein, or the Campbell school in general and its successors) pratfall just once, this is the book for you.

The plot concerns the meeting between a huge starship ('The Sky, my Lady! The Sky!') carrying colonising humans from one system to another in an apparently intelligent-alien-less galaxy, and a race of bat-like aliens with an early industrial civilization, and apparently involved in their own Cold War. On this level, the characters - particularly the aliens - are engaging and the details well worked out.

However, the habitat and its inhabitants are pure Heinlein, even to their sexual mores - and the lack of any actual sex. One of the pov characters is a young woman who might also have stepped out of the pages of 'Podkayne of Mars', or indeed any of the Heinlein juveniles, save that she is actually recognisable as a human female. (Much as I used to love early RAH, he can't write women for toffee.) The Competent Man is, in this case, a very, very long lived chap called Constantine who is, of course, always right, and spend most of his time manipulating other people.

(In case we don't get it, Macleod obligingly throws in an iconic Hienlien quote to make us look in the right direction.)

The humans appear to live in a sort of Utopia, though their financial systems are extreme Capitalism with a safety net. (And that should also raise our suspicions, given 'The Fall Revolution.') Libertarianism rules okay... save that, being human, crew and colonists and the founders all have different motives, needs, and they all politic around with plots and counter plots, manipulating the markets and litigating at the drop of a hat - all in all behaving a bit like Gordon Gekko on speed. Their arrogance is astounding. Sure, they are all bred to be bright, inventive and very long-lived, with an advanced scientific civilization behind them, but that gives them no right to swan into a solar system, take it over, and start interfering with the aliens, imposing their own morality.

The delight of the book is that it overturns their, and our, expectations of the alien culture. Just as one (minor) example, the representative of what appears to be a secret police force that everyone has seemed very scared of is shocked when it is suggested that said secret police might imprison or torture people to ensure their silence. Again, this is a warning that, though in many ways they seem like us - and this is quite deliberate, I am sure - the aliens do not react in the way the humans in the story expect. Ever.



Of course 'Learning the World' has a highly political dimension (it is Macleod, after all) and I'm sure that I am only scratching the surface. It will repay re-reading. Highly recommended.
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