It is a nice situation for a story, but MacLeod fumbles the execution in multiple ways. One huge problem is a character on the human starship called Atomic Discourse Gale (MacLeod seems to have adopted Iain M Banks style of long fancy names – for example, the starship is called But the Sky My Lady! The Sky! – but what works for Banks just seems like a ripoff by MacLeod.) doesn’t do anything throughout the novel. Atomic is writing a blog, and we read her whiny entries – but Atomic merely comments on activities, she doesn’t do anything herself. When action does take place on the human ship, we see it through the eyes of Horrocks Mathematical or Synchronic. Unfortunately, Atomic's blog entries are a major percentage of the book – which makes it boring. What ever happened to the ancient rule to authors: Show, don’t Tell? An editor should have forced MacLeod to go back and do a rewrite. It becomes apparent that there are major factions within the eldest members of the spaceship, but because MacLeod constrains the stories to young Atomic's viewpoint, we miss most of the politics and battles of the older and more interesting humans.
Another major blunder is the bat people are exactly like humans, except they have wings. The parallels to late 19th century Earth are abundant. Indeed, MacLeod even has the bat people refer to themselves as “humans”. It would have been nice if MacLeod had put some imagination and energy into creating a unique alien culture.
Another flaw – the novel is 363 pages long in the paperback edition. The aliens and the humans don’t actually make contact until page 350. What kind of a first contact novel is that? I was slogging through the final pages, with so much undone, I was certain I was reading the first book in a series. But no, Learning the Sky is a stand alone novel with a rushed ending.
The bat creatures have oppressed a species called the “trudges” – these are animals that look similar to the bat creatures, but lack consciousness. The bat creatures use trudges for manual labor, such as pulling wagons or carrying loads. The humans infect the trudges with a language nodule – not quite sure how they know how to do that! – so the trudges can listen in on the bat creatures, and the humans, who are monitoring the altered trudges, can learn the bat creature language. The trudges become self-aware when they are given this artificial language nodule – they learn to speak. What??? MacLeod is suggesting that language is what separates the sentient from the non-sentient? This should have a major impact on the bat creature society – the trudges whom they have oppressed all these years suddenly demand to be treated as equal citizens. Amazingly, there doesn’t seem to be any problems with this – the bat creatures unlikely response is to shrug their shoulders and start treating the trudges as brothers. There is no resentment that the aliens have tampered with the very fabric of their society.
First contact stories can be great. This is not one of the great stories. Instead of reading this flawed book, I highly recommend you read A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge – a much better story about first contact.