The book could have easily been subtitled, “What’s wrong with Star Trek’s Prime Directive!” Not that this must have been the inspiration for this book, there’s enough science fiction with a similar concept, but far too few books who show how naive, arrogant and wrongheaded such a position is. A first contact between transhumans on a generation ship and alien space bats who have just reached their own industrial age turns out to be a new experience for both sides.
Learning the World is about the politics of first contact, written from the POV of both sides, the seemingly more advanced humans and the seemingly lesser advanced alien space bats. We see not only how the Prime Directive approach crashes when coming into contact with reality (and how much of its assumptions are wrongheaded), we also see how much the ingenious aliens can achieve with their primitive resources. The aliens, by the way, are some of the least alien aliens, a deliberate decision on MacLeod’s part.
While I can understand the reasons for doing so, this is the one breaking point of the book, the aliens at times act so much like humans, that you feel more like reading a fable, not science fiction. Another problem is that the middle of the book is a bit slow going, the most interesting things happen in the first third and the last third. Still, the book has much going for it, a neat and detailed background and a plot who is most of the time interesting. Learning the World is a much needed update to first contact and Prime Directive meme.