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Sunday, 7 July 2013

Book Review — Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

Filed under: Fun, Media, Reading — Tags: , — mikewb1971 @ 1:07 AM (01:07)

Learning the World by Ken MacLeod

1st mass-market Tor edition (October 2006) – softcover, 364 pages

Learning the World won Ken MacLeod the Prometheus Award in 2006[1]. Should it have won? Considering that it was up against Vin Suprynowicz’s The Black Arrow, I don’t know. Still, Learning the World was a really good book.

Here’s the plot summary from the back cover:

Humanity has spread to every star within five hundred light-years, coloring the sky with a haze of habitats. But the universe has, so far, been empty of intelligent life.

Now the ancient starship But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky! is entering a promising new system after a four-hundred-year journey. To their immense surprise, they detect patterned signals from the system’s Earth-like world.

Meanwhile, on Ground, second world from the sun, a young astronomer searches for his system’s outermost planet. A moving point of light thrills, then disappoints him. It’s only a comet. But something is very odd about that comet’s path . . . .

For the inhabitants of the starship and of Ground alike, the world has changed. “We are not living in the universe we thought we lived in yesterday. We have to start learning the world all over again.”

Basically, humanity has become somewhat posthuman (or transhuman) to varying degrees – the people on board But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky! have genetically-inheritable virtual-communication systems. Think of surfing the web, reading emails, posting to Facebook, whatever, all in your head, and you’re born with that capability. Among other things – some of those on board are so adapted to the microgravity life that living on a planetary surface would be extremely inconvenient, at best.

And then there’s the aliens, who also think of themselves as “human.” They seem to be evolved from bat-like creatures in the same sort of way that humans here evolved from primates. Their architecture reflects this, as well as the comment some of them make that “if the gods wanted us to build flying machines, they wouldn’t have given us wings.” Wings they do have, and not the vestigal, atrophied kind that ostriches have – the “humans” of Ground are perfectly capable of flight.

Of course, the “comet” that Darvin discovers behaving in a peculiar manner is But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky! (a miles-long and miles-wide generation ship) entering the star system, decelerating as it goes. Since when do comets slow down?

Anyway, the “humans” of Ground are closer to us present-day humans in terms of technology and social development than the humans of Learning the World – they’re about where were in the early Twentieth Century (discovering radio transmission and heavier-than-air powered flight), where the humans of the book have been going about settling various star systems for 15,000 years, albeit limited to 0.01c[2].

As the story progresses, the “humans” of Ground and those on board But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky! provide plenty of intrigue to keep the reader engaged and guessing.

OK – enough spoilers – if you want more, you’ll have to read it for yourself.


  1. MacLeod’s blog site – The Early Days of a Better Nation
  2. March 2006 interview with SFRevu
  3. Wikipedia pages – Ken MacLeod, Learning the World, Prometheus Award


  1. Here’s the full list of Prometheus Award finalists in 2006.
  2. The lower-case letter c stands for the speed of light – 299,792,458 meters per second (186,282.39 miles per second, or 670,760,005.47 miles per hour) in a vacuum. Light goes 9,460,730,472,580,800 (9.46 x 1015 in the short form) meters (5,878,625,373,183,607.73 miles) in one year, hence the term light-year.
  3. Approximate reading level – 9.4
  4. Reposted –
    1. Personal blogs, micro-blogs, etc. – Blogspot / Facebook / Google Plus / Medium / MeetMe / Tumblr / Twitter / Xanga

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