To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves. 

Adriane is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.

Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home. 

A new Becky Chambers is always a reason to rejoice.

In the space (hah) of a novella, the author explores the put-aside, forgotten wonders of space exploration, through the (wide) eyes of a team of scientists and engineers.

In typical Chambers fashion, her vision is what I would qualify as bittersweet optimism. Her characters want to understand, first and foremost: they show an infinite gentleness towards the new worlds they get to see and the new species they get to interact with. They’re ready to modify their own bodies rather than risk destroying fragile and unknown ecosystems. They want knowledge for knowledge’s sake, their mission is financially backed by citizens and not greedy corporations. It felt so pure.

But, and here’s the “bitter” part, the crew has to sleep for decades between travels and then wake up to terrible news from their home planet, like a cruel fairy tale twist. Wars and destruction and so much change…Grief for what, and who, they left behind, is mixed with the wonders and beauty they’re experiencing. Chambers’ balancing act between the hopeful and the grimly realistic is, as always, a pleasure to read.

Hard science-fiction lovers will be happy to know that the novella feels more “technical” than the Wayfarers series. Chambers nerds out with obvious pleasure about the practical workings of space travel, but thankfully not enough for someone like me (a…non-hard science fiction lover, let’s just say) to feel completely put off. Again, the balance.

The other difference between this novella and the Wayfarers is that this story is told from a first-person point of view. We only follow Ariadne, the flight engineer aboard the spacecraft, but the time spent with her crew-mates allows us a deeper, intimate knowledge of the other characters. They’re a family: a family of passionate and brilliant scientists who are devoted to their respective fields, but also caring towards each other.

My only issue is that the ending felt abrupt. Which is admittedly a problem I have with most novellas I read. Chambers packed so much in so few pages but I was still greedy for more.

To be Taught, if Fortunate is to be released on September 3rd, 2019 by HarperVoyager. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy!

One comment

  1. What an amazing idea! I rarely read space colonization fiction because the idea of making another planet fit the needs of humans never sat well with me. If we imagine ourselves forcing other lifeforms to change for us or die, how are exploring humans any better than the alien invaders that our fictional proxies fight in other stories? But the idea of humans adapting to new environments in order to learn…It’s so beautifully human. I love it! I’ll have to see if I can get a hold of a copy. Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

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