To Be Taught, If Fortunate

by Becky Chambers

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Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: September 2019
ISBN: 0-06-293602-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 153

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Ariadne is the flight engineer aboard the Merian. She and her three crewmates were sent from Earth on a fifty-year mission (most of it spent in medical hibernation for transit) to do a survey of four exoplanets in one system. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is the narrative accompanying that mission report, and a question sent back to whoever receives it.

This is a novella that is probably set in the same universe as the Wayfarers books (which start with A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet), but that connection is not explicit in the story. You can read it in isolation and not miss anything.

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.

This is the fourth Becky Chambers story I've reviewed and I've seen some common patterns of reaction, so let me start by setting expectations.

If what you want out of a science fiction novella is hard scientific accuracy, this is not what you're looking for and you're probably going to frustrate yourself. Chambers notes in the acknowledgments that she tried to get the science as close as the story would allow, and there isn't anything quite as egregious as powering a ship via algae grown on the ship (or the kinetic energy of crew footsteps), but I still had several moments of "hm, I don't think it works that way." Those who are pickier than I am are likely to once again run into suspension of disbelief problems.

What Chambers does do, for me at least, is tug directly on the heartstrings. This was a challenge for this novella since To Be Taught, If Fortunate is, among other things, an impassioned defense of human space exploration, something about which I'm notoriously skeptical. With the help of a bit of magical genetic editing during medical hibernation to get past the most obvious objections, she managed to convince me anyway. Chambers does this primarily by showing the reactions of scientists physically present on another planet, doing and getting excited about science, struggling through setbacks, and attempting to navigate surprises and horrors while thinking very hard about ethics and responsibility. It's a slow burn, and I suspect some people will find it boring, but for me it was startlingly effective.

One good choice Chambers makes is that Ariadne is the lone non-scientist in the crew. She's the engineer, the person who fixes and operates things and gets the ship to work. That lets the descriptions of exploratory science on each of the four worlds be outsider perspectives that match the author's perspective (and that of most readers). Ariadne watches other people do ground-breaking science and get excited for and with them, which I found charming and delightful to read about.

Most of this novella is narrative observation of initial planetary exploration, focused mostly although not entirely on biology. It can be a bit disorienting at first, since the drama level is tuned closer to real exploration than the typical story. The four crew members are also refreshingly low on interpersonal drama — perhaps unrealistically so, given the requirement to spend years together in close quarters, but one of the things I like about Chambers is her willingness to write about good people and believe that they can remain good people through difficult moments. The plot inflection points, when they come, have a similar slow burn, giving the reader time to empathize with the characters and get invested in their worries and reactions.

The best moments of this novella for me, though, are where Ariadne describes the space program that gave rise to this mission, the politics of Earth at the time, and the meaning and rituals of that push for renewed space travel. This is beautifully and exceptionally done. It took me a lot of thought after finishing this novella to put my finger on why Ariadne's space program seems so different than ours: It's not grounded in military or naval culture. The prevalence and assumption of hierarchical command structure and rigid discipline is so pervasive in how we think about human missions of exploration that I had a hard time pinpointing what had changed.

I find it interesting to compare this to the later books of Jack McDevitt's Academy series, particularly Cauldron. McDevitt and Chambers are arguing for some similar goals, but McDevitt's argument is the frustrated petulance of the space boosterism wars that go back to the literary fight against William Proxmire in the 1960s and 1970s and is most often rehashed today with some variation of "humans have to get off a single planet to secure a long-term future of the species." Chambers's argument is entirely different. It's less fear-based, more collaborative and consensus-driven, more thoughtful, and makes an argument from wonder instead of expansionism. For me, it's far more persuasive.

I'm going to be thinking about the difference between how Ariadne thinks about her mission and how we normally present space missions for a long time.

I won't give away the ending, but it wasn't at all what I had expected, and I found it surprisingly touching. It's not at all the way that stories like this normally end, but it's quiet and earnest and thoughtful and ethical in a way that's consistent with the rest of the story and with everything else Chambers has written. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

Reactions to Chambers vary widely, I think in part because they're primarily stories about human ethics in semi-utopian societies that only use science and technology as a frame. If you weren't one of the people who loved her books, I don't think this novella is likely to be the break-through moment for you. If, like me, you did love her books, particularly Record of a Spaceborn Few (the most similar to this story), I think you'll like this as well. Recommended for those readers.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-12-29

Last modified and spun 2019-12-30