As a fan of Becky Chambers already, it was probably inevitable that I would pick this for my book club to read. It prompted a lot of discussion, which fed nicely into this review!
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Terraforming is all very well and good, but it does rather tie into the colonialist, empire-building side of space exploration. Leave it to Becky Chambers to put a spin on it which is not only more respectful of the environments of new planets, but also more believable. In To Be Taught, If Fortunate, humanity has set its sights on the stars, and is able to modify the physiology of its astronauts in subtle ways, ways that will help them cope with the alien environments they are exploring. Known as “somaforming,” this process involves wearing an enzyme patch whilst the astronauts sleep between destinations, imbuing them with resistance to, say, certain deadly atmospheric gases, as well as a bevy of other useful upgrades. It’s certainly a more cost-effective and practical way of doing things than the atmosphere-engineering, landscape-sculpting handiwork on display in so much of the rest of science fiction.
Taking the adage “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” (beloved by tourist boards around the world) to the Nth degree, the four-strong crew of Merian are as besotted by the discoveries they make as they are terrified of interfering with them, their wonder ever-tempered by their contamination protocols and noble causes. They are equal parts explorer and documentarian, despite their varying specialisms, and this policy of minimal interference does occasionally put them in some tricky situations. With such admirable ideals, it would be easy to assume that they might be prone to sanctimony, but it’s rare that it feels like Chambers uses this novella as a soapbox.
That crew, by the way, are as wonderfully diverse and well characterised as you would expect from Becky Chambers, if you’ve read anything of hers before. Polyamorous relationships, trans representation, asexuality, a mix of ethnicities; to the cynics, it might sound like these are checkboxes, shoehorned in to fill some kind of quota. But the obvious love the crew have for each other puts paid to any such notion. Their mission of citizen funded “exploration for exploration’s sake” would not be able to function the way it does (with crews leaving behind their families and friends, most likely to never see them again) without them being able to forge their own family within their spacecraft. Their free-thinking liberalism makes perfect sense within this context too. These themes of identity and found family are ones that Chambers has tackled before, and they’re handled just as well here as they are in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, despite the considerably smaller page count.
Just as with her previous work on the Wayfarers series, we’re also never far away from some eye-popping descriptions of the exotic flora, fauna and landscapes that Chambers’ characters find themselves confronted with. The wonder and excitement that they feel as they make a new discovery or view an alien landscape for the first time is infectious, the giddy scientist trope making a number of heart-warming appearances and rarely failing to raise a smile. This story isn’t without its moments of anguish though, as much as it might sound somewhat idyllic. There are some deeply affecting moments here, some of which approach you sidelong over the course of the story and others which come at you all at once. It’s perhaps unfair to compare it to a full novel when weighing up its emotional heft, but you might be surprised at the staying power and resonance To Be Taught, If Fortunate has. For a little book, it does pack a punch, albeit one that is pulled ever so slightly by a slower second act.
Like the best science fiction stories, To Be Taught, If Fortunate prompts discussion, introspection and wonder – we marvel at how pretty the stars that sparkle in the sky are whilst musing on our place among them. It’s no surprise that it was shortlisted for Best Novella at the Hugo Awards; find out what they loved about it by ordering your copy here, or from your preferred independent.
I would also recommend that you check out Jake’s post on all of the Hugo shortlisted novellas over at Jake is Reading, and I make no apologies if you end up buying more books as a direct result of doing so! To Be Taught, If Fortunate is out now, and you can buy your own copy through this affiliate link.