Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (8 August) | 160p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is flight engineer aboard the spacecraft Merian. She and her three crew mates have travelled, as part of the Lawki Program, to explore four habitable worlds in a solar system several light years from Earth. Each of these worlds challenges, delights, frightens and astounds the crew members as they come into contact with other life forms and reflect upon the role of humanity among the stars. Messages from home, which take fourteen years to reach them, are rare and vital, until the day they stop.
Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels are such a joy to read, full of the wonder of space exploration, yet feeling so real due to their stunning depiction of characters, both human and not, and the beautiful, witty writing. There was no way I wasn’t going to read To Be Taught, If Fortunate (another curious title from this fabulous author). The difference this time, apart from the pretty big fact that it isn’t part of the Wayfarer series but stands alone, is that To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a self-contained novella, of about 140 pages.
The story is told by Ariadne, as a message or a report that will be sent home to Earth and sections cover each of the four worlds, from the moment when she and the others awake from years of ‘torpor’, their sleeping state in which they travelled to this far destination. Everything is described in mesmerising detail and, once more, Becky Chambers displays her knowledge and depth of research. There is plenty of science to marvel at and, in my case, occasionally be baffled by, as we approach hard science fiction territory, and it is pleasingly fascinating.
Each of the environments they land on is distinct and the descriptions of what they find there are marvellous as the crew settle to their task of cataloguing life forms, not all of which are easy to fathom. But there is more more to these pages than that. This is also a philosophical tale about the role of humanity in the universe, its insignificance, its danger to life around it, its need for society, its need of purpose.
So much is packed into these few pages and, as is usual with me with a good novella (and the reason why I read so few of them), I wanted much, much more. I needed more time to consider its conclusions and so its ending did leave me a little dissatisfied. Nevertheless, To Be Taught, If Fortunate is excellent. It’s clever, feels real, is full of awe, and yet tells the story of four very human, very normal men and women, whose genetics have been temporarily modified to enable years of life in space, but whose minds and hearts remain fallibly human.
I look forward to reading every word that Beck Chambers publishes and I love the enormous boost to science fiction that her original, clever, heartfelt, witty stories contribute.