Book review

Review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

176 pages | Hodder & Stoughton | Science Fiction, Space Opera

 

The digest: Chambers has once again knocked it out of the park. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a highly political exploration of the human condition, following a four-person astronaut crew on their mission to conduct scientific research on faraway planets in the 22nd Century. In just over 130 pages the author forces us to address our own views on grief, sexuality, justice, and the pursuit of knowledge. The writing is of Chambers’ usual excellent quality, and her story is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Highly recommended!

 

I went into To Be Taught, If Fortunate entirely blind. I think that this is the best way of going about reading the novella, but for those who like to know what they’re getting themselves into, the Goodreads summary is thus:

“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 sub-zero 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 explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.”

 

 

It’s obvious that I really enjoyed this novella, so I think I’ll stick to my usual practice and start with the ‘negatives’ (few and insignificant though they are) so the positives can flow uninterrupted shortly:

  • There isn’t much of a plot or action here. Instead, the novella focuses on bigger questions about what it means to be a human, and to what extent do we have the right to exist on Earth, let alone to expand into other areas of space. All of this is done in the frame of character and world exploration; there are no space wars or other events of that ilk here. Chambers is fully capable of writing action scenes, but you should definitely not expect any here.
    • I have previously praised Chambers’ novels for being so focused on themes and characters, and I will do the same here in just a moment. No points deducted.
  • It’s short. Of course, as a novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate was never going to be hundreds of pages long but having finished it all I could think about is how I wanted more of it. However, one should never fault an author for leaving the reader wanting more provided the episode is complete, as it is here. No points deducted.
    • What did irk me a little bit here is the fact that although my edition of the book is technically 176 pages long, the story itself is only around 135 pages. The rest is interviews and a sampler for the long way to a small, angry planet. These add-ons will probably interest a fair few readers, but it’s something to be aware of. I’m conflicted on this one, as it dead mean that I reached the conclusion of the story much sooner (about 40 pages sooner) than I had expected.

 

 

The (very) good:

  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate is quite unlike all other stories that I have read in its framing; it is effectively a mission report – a diary of sorts – from Ariadne, one of the four astronauts. During some sections, the book takes on more of a direct address approach, the narrator asking the reader to consider this or that, explaining why some scientific phenomena are massively important in a simple way so that the narrator’s addressee (at once the reader and an unnamed, anonymous character or perhaps the narrator’s recording device) could better understand what its significance is. Reading this novella, then, readers should expect a mixture being addressed directly and taking on a typical first-person role in the storyworld, watching as characters do this or that. We are, after all, reading a diary of sorts.
  • Chambers’ writing is phenomenal. With her trademark combination of accessible and poetic language, the author has created a story which compels the reader to finish the story by its prose alone. I wanted to continue reading to enjoy the process itself, not just to consume the story. Fantastic scientific ideas, ship updates, conversations – everything – is presented with such clarity that one cannot help but feel the author’s own passion throughout. Indeed, this sort of clarity projects too the narrator’s sense of enthusiasm in almost every line; she wants us to understand what is going on for the sake of sharing knowledge. I just can’t get over how enthralling this novella actually is. Imagine having a conversation with someone about something they reallllllllllllly love, that’s the level of enthusiasm with which the reader is addressed.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever felt so immersed in the characters’ realities in any other novella. That’s quite a longwinded way of basically saying that the character development here was much better than I had expected. Having enjoyed Chambers’ Wayfarers trilogy, I was a little worried that the characters of a shorter book might suffer due to the format, but the fear was misplaced. Of course, in 135 pages readers do not have too much time to learn characters’ histories or aspirations in detail. However, each character has their own unique traits, speech patterns, and tendencies, with the author giving enough tidbits of information throughout the whole novel to make the reader think about the four of them in greater detail than the book provides us with. By the novella’s conclusion, I had already developed my own head-canon of how each of them would have responded to their education, their final days before takeoff, and what their hobbies may have been in the past. Very good stuff in this department.
    • It is also worth mentioning that the cast is a diverse one. Not quite on the same levels of the Wayfarers books (the main crew are all human), but there is good representation nonetheless.
    • We also see how the characters age during their mission (for some trips they are put into a stasis state, which slows their ageing dramatically but does not freeze it entirely), as well as how they react to their changing biology. The somaforming (discussed in the blurb above) sees the crew’s bodies becoming stronger, or less prone to radiation poisoning and so on. Along with these physical changes, it is worth noting that the characters also mature during their research trip. Ariadne verbalizes a few times how her comrades seem to be behaving more responsibly, or have begun to question their motivations and so forth. I found this to be quite interesting, as rarely do characters really look around at each other and think such things (at least in the book that I read).
      • This allows the reader to examine more critically
  • On top of the development of individual characters, Chambers also explores their relationships in some detail. We see the cast’s conversations, how they value each other’s opinions, or how they physically come into contact with each other. In 135 pages, this one again was excellent. There is one scene in particular perhaps 2/3 of the way through the novel which really demonstrates the importance of these characters’ relationships, and I appreciated Chambers’ ability to turn everything on its head (at least for a little while).
  • To discuss only the characters, however, would be a mistake. The novella is about space travel and scientific research; with the crew of four sent out to faraway planets to search for life beyond our own galaxy. We are told on the second page that they explore four different locations surrounding a shared star, and suffice it to say that these are all magnificently detailed, described with such vividity that one can truly imagine how they look. The crew’s finding, less so (but that’s the point!).
    • Without spoiling anything, I will just say that readers are able to imagine the crew’s exact response to each individual locale, getting caught up in each member’s own excited state now and again. I can imagine what each place looked, smelled, heard, and felt like. Again, to do this in just 135 pages is amazing.
  • These descriptions form a significant part of the novella’s worldbuilding, but it is important to remember that the crew are from Earth, a fact which is never too far from their minds. We are told early on that our home planet faces (in effect) more extreme versions of our modern-day issues; overpopulation, war, famine, disease. This is by no means a unique setting, but when paired with the intensity of the narrator’s own questions (which she asks of both herself and the reader), proves to be one of the more engaging renditions that I have read. How far exactly are we willing to go in the pursuit of knowledge? At what point do we turn around and say, ‘No, that’s quite enough for now’? Why is it that humanity cannot put aside its differences and work together for the greater good? There are more questions raised throughout the book but I will leave them for you to read and discuss.
    • While such questions can be asked by we the readers of reality, the characters of To Be Taught, If Fortunate equally ask them of their own world, with their opinions appearing to change the longer the journey takes. That’s enough about that from me for now – no spoilers!
    • The book is political, there are no two ways about it. The space journey was funded and organised to be a politically neutral exercise, funded by honest donations with no profit-or-influence-based motivation. In some ways, this novella presents both the unimaginable purest elements of humanity against the backdrop of an all too real broken humanity. It’s excellent.
  • I don’t want to spoil the ending at all, but I will say that the novella is a perfect example of ring composition. The first few pages of the story explicitly say that you could skip to the end and have the same questions to respond to, but the magic of the novella is the journey between the start of their mission and the end of the book. Part of me wishes that I could come to the story entirely fresh and do just that, skip from page 2 to page 132 and compare my feelings, but alas to do so is impossible. I recommend that you read this from front to back, with no skipping, to properly enjoy the story.

 

 

Conclusion: 4.5/5. It is clear that I enjoyed this novella. I recommend it to pre-existing fans of Science Fiction or Space Opera genres, but also to those after a character-centric story. You don’t have to have any scientific knowledge at all to appreciate To Be Taught, If Fortunate, just a vague interest in futurology and how humankind may to a societal breakdown in the future.

 

One of Chambers’ novels made it onto my Favourite Books of 2018 list last year! I’m so excited to see what else the author produces in the coming years.

Reviews for Chambers’ other books:

3 thoughts on “Review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

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