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March Books 2) Learning the World

2) Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

I don't plan to get into a habit of meta-reviewing, but I have read coalescent and immortalradical here, and ninebelow here, also greengolux's observations, and papersky's praise. I am much more towards the coalescent and papersky end of the spectrum. I really liked it. I thought that it does indeed add something new to the old sf theme of first contact between humans and aliens. It takes the premise of Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, a book I really didn't like at all, and does it a whole lot better - basically, the aliens on their planet have a society which feels much more like ours than do the humans in the approaching spaceship. I thought the various cultures and subcultures, both human and alien, were convincingly fleshed out. (Planets in sf novels are too often portrayed as having just one culture and one language - in extreme cases, appearing to possess a single time zone.) MacLeod is on top form in both depth and humour in his portrayal of the intellectual shock of the encounter for both humans and aliens.

I did feel the novel had one glaring weakness, shared with most of the classics of the hard sf genre to which it clearly belongs. We find out very little about the characters' inner lives. Much of the human side of the story is conveyed through the blog of a teenage girl, which is frankly much more reminiscent of the author's own blog than of the real thing at the younger end of livejournal; I guess I must be reading more teenage blogs than Ken does (and I don't read them much at all). The human characters jump in and out of bed with each other and suffer little emotional embarrassment; as for the aliens, this is the one respect in which we really don't get inside their heads.

However, it's going on my Hugo nominations list.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
bennmorland
Mar. 4th, 2006 08:14 pm (UTC)
And it's going on my To-Read list. :D
andrewducker
Mar. 5th, 2006 03:10 pm (UTC)
I think that there's been misreading of ADITS. The spiders are portrayed so closely to humans because what we're reading is being filtered through the human translators, who are deliberately portraying them in such a way as to cause us to empathise with them. This is explained near the end of the book, when the plot is revealed. What they are _actually_ like is pretty much impossible to tell.
nwhyte
Mar. 5th, 2006 03:40 pm (UTC)
I think that there's been misreading of what I wrote, plus an unfortunate and I hope unintentional turn of phrase that makes your comment look arrogant and patronising.

In addition, I don't agree with your interpretation of A Deepness in the Sky. The Spiders are first introduced to the reader decades before the human translators have started observing them.

It is indeed very clear that the humans' understanding of the Spiders is necessarily formed by their own preconceptions, and the fact that the channel of communication goes through a particular set of humans is the key to the plot twist at the end (which I found completely implausible, taken on the book's own terms); but I did not feel that the reader was meant to share in the humans' misperceptions.

And I think that the human characters are simply nastier than the Spiders, on any reasonable scale of human behaviour.
andrewducker
Mar. 5th, 2006 05:29 pm (UTC)
I apologise for any offense I've given. I'd appreciate it if you could tell me what it was I said that was arrogant and patronising, so I don't do it again.

I'd agree that the humans are nastier than the Spiders tpp/

It is my recollection that the way the Spiders are portrayed is entirely through the translations of the humans, and given a positive "homely" spin, and that when this is explained to our heroes, the methods given for making the Emergent's friendlier to the spiders are explicitly the same as ones used in the sections of the book pertaining to them.

However, my copy of the book is 450 miles away at the moment, and buried in stacks. I'll have a dig about when I get back.
nwhyte
Mar. 6th, 2006 04:16 pm (UTC)
Andy,

Apology accepted.

I took offense at your introductory sentence, "I think that there's been misreading of ADITS." I would not have minded "I don't agree with your reading of ADITS", since obviously you don't or we wouldn't be having this discussion; but it seemed to me unnecesarily aggressive to say that my reading of it is categorically wrong; and then on top of that, irritatingly arch to not even dare to put it as directly as "You have misread ADITS" but instead say "There has been misreading of ADITS". The initial qualifying statement "I think that..." did help a little, but not enough.

I hope that is clear.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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