To Be Taught, If Fortunate – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Novella, Standalone

Scifi, Space, Adventure

Harper Voyager; September 3, 2019

134 pages (PB)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a novella by Wayfarers author Becky Chambers, set in a future Milky Way, where a small group of scientists have escaped the bounds of our solar system in the hopes of exploration and discovery. It’s a short yet sometimes dense read, with equal parts science and fiction, both of which shone brightly. While it doesn’t feature quite the same level of immersion featured in her core series, To Be Taught If Fortunate still managed to tug at my heart-strings, while occasionally sending a cascade of chills down my spine. But just because I loved it doesn’t mean you will too.

Ari is one of four scientists that make up Lawki-6, a extrasolar mission to Zhenyi (that dgen-yee, or jen-yee, if you’re interested) a fictional red dwarf system approximately 15 light years from Earth, sent to explore and document the four planets within the star’s habitable zone. Thanks to a revitalized space program, combined with a revolutionary method of engineering evolution, humanity can not only visit these worlds within one lifetime, but can also survive the experience. “Somaforming” uses slow-release biological mutations to subtly alter the human body so that it can survive exposure to these worlds. Sub-light engines reduce the flight time to 28 years, while suspended animation slows the aging process to just two. When Ari was born, it had been over 55 years since humanity sent anyone into space. Her generation sought to change that. And hey—why not aim big?

Ari, as the mission’s flight engineer, is assigned to recording the voyage and its discoveries for transmission back to Earth. The others—Jack (geologist), Chikondi (biologist), and Elena (astrophysicist)—have equally import missions, but all deal with the data. Ari helps out in each area, but her primary duties include tending the spacecraft and recording the story. TBTIF is essentially her story.

While TBTIF is in and of itself a story of adventure and discovery, it also represents a major trial for each of its characters. Imagine leaving Earth with the intention of returning—in 80 years. Everyone you have ever known or loved will be dead. The places you recognize, the foods you eat, the stories you enjoy might all be gone. Your team of four will spend most of the next century literally light years away from anything or anyone familiar. There will be wonders, yes—as you see things no human has ever set on eyes, set foot on extrasolar worlds, experience the new and the unknown in every waking moment. But there will also be hardship; struggle, loneliness, heartache, depression, more. Now imagine that even the people that sent you here—the OCA—might potentially have forgotten you. You are alone. Well and truly alone.

What would you do?

TBTIF features a heavy dose of science, too much for some people. When done in a casual, almost flippant style, it can be hard to take in—this is why I have so much trouble reading Alastair Reynolds or Carl Sagan; two people who definitely know what they’re talking about, only can’t seem to understand how to relay it to their audience. Becky Chambers takes the Neil deGrasse Tyson approach instead: simplifying down the language enough to try to explain it to those not versed in the more technical science, while likewise explaining it in technical terms. While I loved this approach (both of them, as in a past life I had thoughts of becoming a physicist), not everyone is going to. If you like your scifi science-light and fiction/action heavy, this might not be for you. It’s one reason I have trouble with military scifi—I like some innovation in my militia, and a decent dose of science in my science fiction.

The book is divided into four parts—Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum—one for each of the four planets visited. There is an overarching plot, but the story itself is one of discovery. Both for and within the crew themselves. The adventure was a big allure, if I’m honest. I adored the descriptions and the exploration. The science, the struggle, even the plot. Not that the plot is bad, mind, it’s just a little more subtle and less-involved than some other stories. As the team visits each world, the story changes. What united them on one planet may divide them on another. But they are pretty close knit. Though the novella deals primarily with exploration and discovery, the plot centers around its characters. And the characters are truly its greatest strength.

I had only a slight issue with the beginning and end, but can’t get into it because of possible spoilers. It just wasn’t something I expected, let’s say. The only thing this did was ruin a perfect rating—nothing more.

TL;DR

If you like your scifi with a heavy dose of science, To Be Taught, If Fortunate may be the book for you. While the novella tells a story laced with exploration and adventure and scientific discovery, the plot focuses strongly on its characters. Ari—as the narrator—draws major screen time, but Jack, Elena, and Chikondi get more than enough that you’ll learn their strengths and weaknesses throughout the near-hundred and a half pages. You’ll see them at their best, and at their worst. You’ll exult at their elation, tear up at their despair. I did, at least. Hopefully y’all like it, too.