‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a beautiful, emotional novella which captures humanity in a way only Becky Chambers can do. Filled with poignant, memorable scenes it’s a little slice of hope in a world which desperately needs it.
Set somewhere in the early 22nd century, it imagines a world in which humans have developed the technology to explore nearby planets compatible with life. Instead of developing complex machines and terraforming, humans have transformed themselves, developing ways to optimise their bodies to whichever planet they land on at the time. Ariadne, an engineer, is one of a crew of four sent to investigate these planets. Put in a form of stasis between planets, the journey will take a mere decade or so for her – but eighty years will pass back home on Earth. Ariadne and her colleagues have no idea how Earth will have changed on their return. As they grapple with the claustrophobia of deep space, the joy of new discovery, the thrill of being the first humans to set foot on new worlds, and the deep sadness of leaving all their loved ones – including their beloved planet – behind, they must answer one key question: what’s more important, their mission or the fate of those back home?
Chambers specialises in character-driven science fiction. She can craft complex technologies, entire alien races with plausible xenobiology, and realistic forms of space travel, but the crowning achievement of her work is how much the reader comes to love the characters and how deeply it makes them feel. This novella is no different. Ariadne is an eminently relatable character. She never intended to go to space, joining the space agency intending to be an engineer with her feet firmly on the ground, and fell into the astronaut program by accident. She’s strong and intelligent, with tight bonds of friendship to each of her crewmates, but she’s also given up her entire life for this mission – and no matter how amazing the things they discover are, there are always moments of darkness and doubt. Chambers chronicles the highs and the lows so well that the reader can’t help but feel them as well. At the end of the day, Ariadne stands by her choices, but her journey to get there is both haunting and beautiful.
For a novel with, essentially, four characters, there’s a huge amount of diversity. Ariadne is bisexual, one of the main characters is asexual, and another is transgender. One of the characters is Latin American, another Black. Each of these things is noted but never used as a plot point or discussion. It shows how easy it is to naturally fill a book with diverse characters, and hopefully hints of an accepting future.
The main difference between ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ and the work chambers is most known for, her ‘Wayfarers’ quartet, is the focus on ethics. Here, Chambers delves into the ethics of space travel – the colonial nature of humanity imposing itself on new planets, the risk to local ecosystems, the ethics to the astronauts themselves of taking them away from their families and decades out of their own time. These are complex issues with no clear answers, but the discussions posed are fascinating. None of these issues feel shoved in – they weave naturally through the plot and add another level of maturity. I adore the ‘Wayfarers’ books, but this is a more challenging undertaking.
Overall, ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a fantastic novella that marries Chambers’ exceptional ability to write characters and deeply emotional stories with intriguing discussions on ethics and futuristic science. Recommended for all science fiction fans, along with fans of general philosophy and stories with heart.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 8th August 2019 / Paperback: 3rd November 2020