Book Review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

TitleTo Be Taught, If Fortunate

Author: Becky Chambers

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton UK / Haper Voyager US
Publication date: August 8 / September 3 2019
Hardcover: 135 pages

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. 

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Audiobook

Review

I love this new novella by Becky Chambers with the
brightness of one billion supernovas.

Standing alone and apart her Hugo award-winning Wayfarers
series, To Be Taught, If Fortunate follows four astronauts on a mission
to explore four new celestial bodies in the 22nd century. The
mission is to last eighty years in which the astronauts will find themselves sleeping
in between each destination. While they sleep, their bodies undergo somaforming,
a technological advance that allows for adaptations to their bodies in order
for them to be able to survive on each location. The first one for example, is
a dark planet and each astronaut wake up from their first two decades after leaving
Earth with their bodies able to glitter in the dark. That adaptation disappears
when they no longer need it, changing to something else as they move along.

The idea here, one that is fundamental to the ideals the astronauts
live by, and the foundation of the novella itself is that they have no interest
in changing other worlds to suit them. There is no terraforming, here,
only a number of reasonable precautions to avoid cross contamination and undue
involvement in other life form’s development. The transformation is of the
observers, always. Physical yes but also emotional and psychological. You don’t
embark on a mission such as this without being profoundly changed.

This ideal is coupled with unquenched optimism and noble goals with a found family like the ones Becky Chamber is so adept at writing. Any tension present is the tension behind making future choices, there is no real villain or enemy.  

Ariadne is the mission’s pilot and engineer and she is
talking to us throughout: her readers, her listeners, the people who were in
charge of sending them on their mission, the people left behind. She tells us
of the stories of each stop, the wonderful discoveries made, the excitement
behind every single moment of success and the terror behind failures and unforeseen
problems. Through her eyes we learn about new places, about her best friends
and occasional lovers onboard, about the mysteries of the universe and the unanswered
questions out there.

Toward the end of their mission, they are faced with a choice.
A choice that is ultimately put to each of us, humans left behind, with an open
ending that blew my mind away in how impacting it was. The moment I realised what
was going on, where the story was going, I had to stop, unable to take in the sheer
wonder of it, unable to keep on listening to the (excellent) audiobook.    

We live in a world where people have turned their back to
science (we have the antivaxxers and the flat earthers out there just to name
a  few), in which people gleefully deny
climate change or think of space exploration as an armaments race. This story is
a balm for those of us with an undiluted love for science, discovery and knowledge.

I can’t express how deliriously happy and hopeful this
novella made me.

Rating: 10 – Lovely and Perfect

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