Title: To Be Taught, If Fortunate
Author: Becky Chambers
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: August 8, 2019
Length: 153 pages
Genre: Science fiction
A stand-alone science fiction novella from the award-winning, bestselling, critically-acclaimed author of the Wayfarer series.
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 subzero 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 journey to neighboring exoplanets long known to harbor life.
A team of these explorers, Ariadne O’Neill and her three crewmates, are hard at work in a planetary system fifteen light-years from Sol, on a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds. But as Ariadne shifts through both form and time, the culture back on Earth has also been transformed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the story of the wonders and dangers of her mission, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.
The title of this novella is a line from former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s message carried on the Voyager space probe in 1977:
We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship — to teach, if we are called upon; to be taught, if we are fortunate.
These lines provide a beautiful summary of the theme of Becky Chambers’ deeply thoughtful novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. The novella tells the story of the four-person crew of the Lawki 6 mission — a team of astronauts sent on a decades-spanning mission to explore four potentially life-supporting planets located outside Earth’s solar system. The astronauts embark on their journey knowing that their friends, families, and colleagues will all be gone by the time they return to Earth some 80 years in the future — but knowledge is their holy grail, and they’re devoted to their higher purpose.
We learn about the mission through Ariadne, the mission engineer, who writes a letter back to Earth — this is the narrative we read. Ariadne describes the ship’s journey through space — the years of torpor (deep sleep/stasis in which the crew members pass the years of long transit, awakening when they reach their destinations), the glory of discovery as they set foot on each new world, and the traumatizing despair that sets in when they seem to have reached a dead end with no means of continuing the journey.
The story is full of moments of sheer joy, as the team revels in each new world and its wonders — but there’s also sorrow, as communications from Earth inexplicably stop arriving, and the crew is left to consider what, if anything, they might find upon their eventual return.
I’ve described Becky Chambers’ books as “gentle science fiction”, and I’d say the same applies here. Not gentle as in boring or uneventful, but gentle meaning focusing on the people, their emotions and relationships, their hopes and fears. There are no evil forces, no catastrophic invasions, no epic tragedies, and certainly no space battles or laser guns! This is science fiction on a human scale — it’s what the people experience, think, and feel that matters here, and that’s plenty.
We are human. We are fragile. Are we who you want out here?
The writing is lovely, and through the medium of Ariadne’s letter back to Earth, we get to know her on a deep and intimate level. What would a person feel in these circumstances, cut off from home, living in a restricted space with three other people, seeing the passage of time by the changing length of her hair and fingernails each time she emerges from torpor? This book makes the reader feel it all as well, all within just 153 pages.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a spare, finely-tuned portrait of humanity’s quest for knowledge and pursuit of higher purpose, as well as a moving depiction of particular people in a unique circumstance.
Don’t miss it!