A Review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
For fans of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series, To Be Taught, If Fortunate will be a bit of a surprise. Some elements that we know and love remain, like the chummy camaraderie of crewmates onboard a spacecraft, the sex, the proliferation of worldbuilding details about things like food, plants, and the delineations of the idiosyncrasies of individual characters. But Chambers also finds a different voice, or at least a new tone, which emphasizes the science in science fiction. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is very crunchy and sciency. Aliens of human-level intelligence are absent. There’s no AI. And while the premise of the novella is futuristic, the idea of Earth sending four astronauts fourteen light-years into the universe to explore several planets that allegedly have the conditions necessary for life to evolve isn’t one that gives readers pause the way it might have even seventy years ago.
Narrator Ariadne O’Neill and her crewmates (and lovers) Elena Quesada-Cruz and Jack Vo (yep, it’s like that), along with Chikondi Daka, choose career over family and friends and enter suspended animation to travel to four different habitable planets in orbit around a distant star. They’re coming back, eventually, at least that’s their intention at first, but it’s going to be a long trip. They also undergo, between each set of planets, the process of “somaforming,” a genetic manipulation which reformats their bodies to better survive in the specific environments they’re travelling to (shiny skin to soak up the light in darker places, denser bones to survive heavier gravity).
The first two planets, Aecor and Mirabilis, are pretty dope. There’s plenty of multi-cellular organisms. There’s lots of cool rocks. Ariadne spins the thread of the story of a foursome of super-geeky science geeks geeking out about all sorts of junk like that. They’re psyched, they’re enraptured. They stop reading the news files that Earth routinely sends (after all, what do the political squabbles of fourteen years ago matter at this point? At least to these people); they stop reading the news for years at a time. Bad stuff happens back home and finally the news files stop coming. So do all of the other communications files.
By the time the crew (and the readers) find out why, our heroes have decided they have a choice to make- to go back and deal, or to go forward and explore a few more planets that are theoretically in reach, and die out there. Go big or go home. The way that they explain that choice, and the way in which they choose to resolve the issue and the means they employ to decide, turn out to make a profound and impactful impression on the reader.
This short book is both sad and illuminating, funny and thrilling in turn. And Becky Chambers has something to teach us, if we are fortunate enough to read.
Other helpful reviews:
By Emily VanDerWerff Becky Chambers: A sci-fi author who excels at grim, necessary optimism - Vox
By Christine Sandquist To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers – Black Forest Basilisks