To Be Taught, If Fortunate: The wonder, and the ethical dilemmas, of space

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTo Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTo Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’s novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019) takes the form of a letter from a space traveler, Ariadne O’Neill, to the people of Earth. Why Ariadne is writing it, we will learn later.

Ariadne is part of a small but diverse crew that has been sent to explore a moon and three planets that it is believed might harbor life. They will sleep in hibernation during the journey to this star system, explore each world, then go into hibernation again for the journey back. All told, they will be gone for eighty years, which means their goodbyes to their loved ones are permanent (which is explored in a poignant scene early in the novella). On each planet, they use a process called somaforming which adapts their bodies to survive in that planet’s particular conditions.

Chambers’s writing is beautiful as she unfolds the landscapes and organisms that Ariadne and her crewmates discover. At first, it’s all positive:

I’m a secular woman, but that moon felt to me like a sacred place. A monastic world that repaid hard work and dogged patience with the finest of rewards: Quiet. Beauty. Understanding.

Chambers is adept at explaining scientific concepts to a lay audience; whenever she needs to discuss something that the reader might not have the scientific background to understand, Ariadne will explain it in a way that flows with the story, so that if you don’t know the concept, you’ll have a basic grasp on it afterward, and if you did already know it, your eyes won’t glaze over because the way she tells it is engaging.

Becky Chamber

Becky Chambers

As the crew explore the other three planets, things get complicated. Technical and ethical challenges arise, and there are hints that all is not well back on Earth. The crew’s ethical dilemmas culminate in one big one, the answer to which is haunting and harks back to an early anecdote from Ariadne about the massive (but often invisible) support system behind every astronaut.

Kat previously reviewed Chambers’s WAYFARERS trilogy and found it not very plotty. I would actually agree with that assessment, and I think maybe it works better in this shorter format. To Be Taught, If Fortunate has kind of a slice-of-life quality up until the very end, taking us through the various tasks and discoveries that occupy the crew. It’s a bit like reading field notes, but with more introspection and less dryness. (More than anything, it reminded me of The River that Flows Uphill by William Calvin, a nonfiction book that explains evolution by telling the story of a crew of scientists on a float trip, with the science worked into the travelogue. It’s like that, but in a fictional world.)

I enjoyed To Be Taught, If Fortunate and recommend it as a well-written look at both the wonder of discovery and the ethical responsibilities that might await us in space. At 176 pages, it’s also a low-time-commitment way to find out if Chambers’s style resonates with you. I will probably check out some of her longer work after this.

Published in 2019. A stand-alone science fiction novella from the award-winning, bestselling, critically-acclaimed author of the Wayfarer series. At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in subzero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to journey to neighboring exoplanets long known to harbor life. A team of these explorers, Ariadne O’Neill and her three crewmates, are hard at work in a planetary system fifteen light-years from Sol, on a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds. But as Ariadne shifts through both form and time, the culture back on Earth has also been transformed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the story of the wonders and dangers of her mission, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.


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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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