Yesterday we were in a universe that included us and lots of cool stuff: stars, galaxies, plasmas, cometary bodies, planets and cows and giraffes and AIs and blue-green algae and lichens and micro-organisms.
Today we are in a universe that contains us and lots of cool stuff and alien space bats.
That's a different universe.
A universe with a different history, different potentialities, different future from the universe we thought we lived in yesterday.
We have to start learning the world all over again.
The Hugo Award winners were announced on Saturday night; the winner in the best novel category was Spin, which seems to me well deserved. Sure, it would've been nice to see George R R Martin get that "Big One" he spent so much time waxing euphemistical about at Torcon back in 2003, but A Feast for Crows was, I think, a slightly below-par entry in the otherwise stunning 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series; and, in any case, the Hugo tends to go to SF rather than fantasy, so I'm not surprised. Anyway, here, belatedly, is my fourth and final post on the subject: Ken MacLeod gives us academic wranglings, alien space bats and blogging first contact in Learning the World.
As the passage opening this post would indicate (in case the book's subtitle hadn't already dropped the hint), Learning the World is about first contact; that is, with humankind's first encounter with alien life. On the one side, we have a "sunliner", a spaceship that carries its own ecosystem and several generations of (long-lived) human beings, many adapted to live in freefall. (The ship's name, rather wonderfully, is But the Sky, my Lady! The Sky!) On the other, the planet that the sunliner brings its humans to: Ground, inhabited by a species of sentient, humanoid bats, whose tech level is somewhere around the equivalent of our late Victorian period. The dilemma runs thus: should contact be attempted? What impact might settlers from the stars have upon the "primitive" bat people below? And, moreover, what does it mean to humanity to have company in the universe? Who, ultimately, will learn from whom?
The book's structure parallels the two societies, alternating between a chapter on the sunliner and one on Ground. The former is split between crew members and representatives of the various generations (or, as they become, factions) on board - including the novel's only first-person narrator, Atomic Discourse Gale, a teenager of the settler generation whose blog gives us the commentary quoted above. She is the most successful shipboard character, I think, a very relatable mixture of advanced-human intellect with a suitably teenage tendency to urgent self-centredness and dramatic pronouncements, who finds her voice and becomes more influential than she could have imagined. The other characters - including Constantine, the "Oldest Man" - appear, disappear and politick as the plot requires them to.
On Ground, the story centres on a group of university-based scientists, whose research into "kinematography", "heavier-than-air" travel and possible new planets is rudely interrupted by the appearance in their skies of what they initially believe is a new comet - one that appears to be slowing down. MacLeod has fun with his wingèd society, translating our idioms into batspeak ("if the gods had meant us to build flying machines, they wouldn't have given us wings") and archaising both dialogue and science:
"Do I have the honour," he asked in flawless but accented Selohic, "of the presence of the renowned astronomer Darvin of Five Ravines?"
Darvin stopped before the stranger and spread his hands. "You flatter my fame beyond all reason, sir, but I am Darvin."
Yet despite the instances of "old chap", appearances of delicious lines like "It would require some damned ticklish and unlikely conveniences", and mentions of etheric waves, the Victorian touches are - disappointingly, at least to me - more of setting than style. This isn't pasticherie on a Susanna Clarke level, and the dialogue slips in and out of its manneredness. MacLeod is more interested in the tangible. Rather too much so, in fact; the bat folk use telescopes and telephones, drink tea, publish papers in academic journals, and generally behave much as one would expect nineteenth-century academics to do. Lectures conducted to a hall full of students hanging upside down are all very well, but where are the truly alien touches? (The humans' suggestion, at one point, that bat tech has developed differently due to the labour being almost wholly the domain of the trudges seems to be a misinterpretation - and, in any case, they seem to fulfil pretty much the same role as horses). Even the structure of family life seems more human than bat; as far as I could tell, for example, parents raise the kiddies as couples in private houses, rather than communally. These chapters are enjoyable, and the characters have their quirks, but ultimately it all feels a bit underdeveloped, and largely subsumed beneath the wider demands of plot.
The plot, at least, skips along briskly, benefitting from the structural arrangement to the tune of several semi-cliffhanger chapter endings (enough, certainly, to keep me turning the pages). The novel comes into its own as the two sides become increasingly aware of their new neighbours, and try to second-guess each other's motives. The consequences of first contact - long before the two races meet face-to-face or even communicate directly - are seen in the ways the two societies interpret and respond to events. Differing approaches to contact and colonisation provoke a split aboard the sunliner, between the restless enthusiasm of the settler generation and the parochial caution of their elders. Their fears and debates are several. Might contact with aliens drive the peoples of Ground to warfare, as it would have to the human nations at the equivalent stage of development? Do the observing humans have the right - or the obligation - to put a stop to what appears to them an institution of slavery? Similarly, divergent views on the aliens - threat, opportunity, herald of the end times - emerge on Ground; an arms race between neighbouring states looms, popular newsheets whip up panic, and government agents seek to control information.
Interesting though all this seems in prospect, a little too much of it remains potentiality, extrapolation, theoretical model (and what does happen often seems to occur 'off-screen', reported later by our blogger or reflected upon by those involved); the novel is simply too short to fully explore the implications, and the juicy politicking frequently takes a back seat to conversations about technology or biology.
The broader SFnal theme under examination is Fermi's paradox: if there are other forms of intelligent life out there, where have they been all our lives? Or, as the indefatigable Atomic Discourse Gale puts it:
It's called the principle of mediocrity. I looked it up. What it means is that multicelluar life, leave alone intelligent life, is either very rare, or very nearly ubiquitous. [...] What are the odds against the only two intelligent species in the galaxy arising independently within five hundred light years of each other, and ariving at civilisation within less than twenty thousand years of each other? [...] This is so unlikely that something else, something quite shattering, is more probable: we aren't the only two.
It is clearly this question that MacLeod is interested in and strives to answer; but, again, the conclusion seemed curtailed, even abrupt.
In the end, both the ideas and their impact upon human and bat-folk life felt shortchanged. Themes are signalled but not always allowed room to breathe. I wanted to see more, much more, about the people involved and their societies' struggle to assimilate the revelation of contact. I genuinely enjoyed the book; it was pacey, absorbing, and written with a deft but endearingly lighthearted touch. But I couldn't help but feel that - at least for this reader's tastes - Learning the World could have been half as long again, and much richer for it.
[Note: The title of this post was inspired by the final track on Peeping Tom, and should thus preferably be 'heard' in Mike Patton's voice. As, really, would everything be in an ideal world ;-) ]