To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Review by Annabel, 3 September 2019

Those who’ve visited Shiny New Books before may know of my passion for the novels of Becky Chambers, one of the most distinctive new voices in Science Fiction. In her ‘Wayfarers’ series, she has created a unique milieu, which shows a broadly optimistic view of the future. Humankind has been adopted into the Galactic Commons, and coexists peacefully and cooperatively with its alien members. Within this trope, Chambers is surely the heir to Gene Roddenbury’s Star Trek ‘Federation’.

Her style has matured as the books have been published. The first Wayfarer’s book, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, was a romp with comedic shades of cult BBC TV series Red Dwarf.  The second book (reviewed here), A Closed and Common Orbit, took one of the characters, an AI, and drove their particular story onward, starting where the first book left off–retaining a lot of the first book’s sheer enjoyment, but thinking more deeply about the main characters. The third, Record of a Spaceborn Few (see here), was set in the same time-frame at a different location in her universe. Although not lacking drama, this third novel took a more serious route to show us how humans adapted to living in a fleet in space, after the Earth was broken, and the different roles needed to make fleet living work.

Through these three novels, Chambers has continued to build her world, showing great imagination, taking us with her into her vision of the future which, finally, brings me to her new novella – a standalone prequel to the Wayfarer’s timeline. I’m pleased to say her love of distinctive titles hasn’t diminished! To Be Taught, If Fortunate didn’t disappoint; it may be novella length but it is thought-provoking in its depth. Additionally, Chambers prefaces the novella with a prologue that instills a sense of drama from the outset:

If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this. …

It’s been fifty years since we left Earth, and I don’t know whose eyes or ears this message has reached. I know how much a world can change within the bookends of a lifetime.

I was born in Cascadia on July 13, 2081. On that day, it had been fifty-five years, eight months, and nine days since a human being had been in space. I was the two-hundred-and-fourth person to go back, and part of the sixth extrasolar crew. I’m writing to you in the hope that we will not be the last.

Ariadne O’Neill is our narrator; she is the flight engineer on board the spacecraft Merian, part of the sixth extra-solar crew sent to explore exoplanets. It’s the 22nd century, and she has been in space for fifty years, much of it spent in ‘torpor’, (I love Chambers’ term for suspended animation, it feels so much more real). Merian’s mission is to explore the moon and three habitable planets around a red dwarf star and carry out eco-surveys. The story is told in four parts, one for each of the moon/planets they land on.

The main story begins with the crew coming out of ‘torpor’ upon their arrival at Aecor, the icy moon of the star Zhenyi. In typical Chambers fashion, Ariadne tells us all about the effects of torpor: how it feels like a hangover, how hair and nails keep growing, if slowly, about removal of nutrient drips and catheter, how each crew member has their own room with their chamber in with a mirror positioned to the side for when you’re ready to look – it’s a long way from people waking in perfect condition as so often shown in the movies. Chambers’ eye for detail, telling us tons of information without it feeling like an info dump, makes for a fascinating beginning.

Then the four-person crew get to work. Once they’ve landed, Ariadne’s job is to assist the mission specialists Elena, Jack and Chikondi as they conduct their geological and biological surveys. Again, Chambers has thought the science through – they suit up fully to go outside the spacecraft so they don’t contaminate Aecor with their bacteria, for instance. The thrill of the crew finding new life-forms swimming beneath the ice is hard to beat, but it’s soon time to move on to the next exoplanet, Mirabilis.

As you would hope, each of the four planets is very different. On Mirabilis, they encounter a rich variety of flora and fauna in the slightly heavier gravity. On the ocean planet Opera, they experience a very different and stressful stay confined to their ship settled in the water, whereas Votum is a tidally-locked planet with a never-ending day. Each destination has its own unique character.

Alongside the exploration is the problem of communicating with Earth. The news bulletins they receive are fourteen years out of date. We know from the prologue that something may have happened, but I can’t tell you more of course.

Given the book’s short length, we don’t get to know the other three crew members quite as well as we could which is a shame, for Elena, the captain, becomes particularly interesting as their situation develops. Making the whole book seen through Ariadne’s eyes gives consistency but is limiting too. Having decided to make this a novella rather than a full-blown novel has meant that Chambers has made other economies; however, the compressed length keeps the story and the pioneering journey to the forefront.

Gene Roddenbury in his original Star Trek pitch described his concept as ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’, a western in space. Chambers’ novella certainly embraces that pioneering aspect, and I can’t wait for more from her, whether set in the later times of the Wayfarer books, or more first steps into space – I’d love to read her vision of first contact in particular – I hope she’ll write one!

Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors, and has a personal blog at AnnaBookBel.

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019). 978-1473697164, 160pp., hardback.

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