To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers
Science Fiction | 136 Pages | Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2018
| TL;DR |
To Be Taught, If Fortunate tells the tale of the crew of the Merian as they explore the universe in a quest to understand life as no one yet knows it. Following their passions, their hopes, and their dreams, this is a tale that binds us to their mission in an exploration of exhilarating highs and terrifying lows.
In a narrative suffused with joyful discovery and mounting despair, To Be Taught, If Fortunate warms the heart and sets the soul soaring to the stars.
| Synopsis |
In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the galaxy transform themselves.
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.
| Review |
Ariadne O’Neill is an astronaut and flight engineer aboard the OCA spacecraft Merian. After near three decades of sleep, she and her crew awake above their vessel to complete their mission amongst the stars – an ecological survey of exoplanets known or suspected to harbour life.
The development of somaforming has enabled astronauts to adapt their bodies to new environments; to survive crushing gravity, sweltering heat, dangerous levels of radiation and below freezing temperatures. Under the protection of this genetic supplementation, the research team are able to adapt, survive and survey their surroundings in earnest; cataloguing planets, ecological habitats and ensure there is a record of all sentient life.
Written in the form of a communications report to earth, Ariadne condenses the journey and experiences of the Merian and her crew into four equal parts, each telling a tale of discovery and wonder as the crew explore a different planet. These linked journeys are overflowing with worldbuilding and scientific details, both of which form the backbone of this novella and allow Becky Chambers to showcase her beautiful, literary prose – a quite different experience to that aboard the Wayfarer.
The descriptions of the Merian – the inflatable habitat modules, the close internal quarters, the interconnecting spaces – are some of my favourite in the whole novella, and give a sense of home in a vast and endless wilderness. Similarly, the descriptions of somaforming are well thought out and provide a considered explanation for how humans have been able to endure space travel and commence their exploration of new worlds. The science, however, is developed with a light touch and never overwhelms the narrative.
While this novel focuses more on the exploration of worlds rather than the characters inhabiting them, there is still a drive and goodness behind Chambers’ creations which give the reader hope and an emotional connection to the narrative. Ariadne, Elena, Jack and Chikondi are interesting yet relatable creations, albeit ones whose jobs are intertwined with their hobbies and their passions. and their unique shared experience aboard the Merian makes for a fascinating read.
There is a simple beauty to Chambers’ writing and To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a unique and memorable novella with a focus on joy and discovery, and the impact of the journey on the crew. Told from the single point of view of Ariadne, Chambers skilfully unravels a meaningful narrative which has been written with nothing short of warmth and love for the human condition and our seemingly in-built desire to explore the stars. This is a novella that seems real, feels real and, though fairly light on the science fiction, is effortlessly engaging throughout.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate can best be described as a love letter to the stars, to space exploration and to the people who make it all possible. It eloquently captures the joy of space travel, the awe of discovery, and new possibilities that can only be imagined a world away from home. While this novella is perhaps not the equal of Chambers’ Wayfarers series, it has a beauty and a charm all of its own that captures the imagination and sets our minds soaring through the universe around us.