Becky Chambers’s novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019) takes the form of a letter from a space traveler, Ariadne O’Neill, to the people of Earth. Why Ariadne is writing it, we will learn later.
Ariadne is part of a small but diverse crew that has been sent to explore a moon and three planets that it is believed might harbor life. They will sleep in hibernation during the journey to this star system, explore each world, then go into hibernation again for the journey back. All told, they will be gone for eighty years, which means their goodbyes to their loved ones are permanent (which is explored in a poignant scene early in the novella). On each planet, they use a process called somaforming which adapts their bodies to survive in that planet’s particular conditions.
Chambers’s writing is beautiful as she unfolds the landscapes and organisms that Ariadne and her crewmates discover. At first, it’s all positive:
I’m a secular woman, but that moon felt to me like a sacred place. A monastic world that repaid hard work and dogged patience with the finest of rewards: Quiet. Beauty. Understanding.
Chambers is adept at explaining scientific concepts to a lay audience; whenever she needs to discuss something that the reader might not have the scientific background to understand, Ariadne will explain it in a way that flows with the story, so that if you don’t know the concept, you’ll have a basic grasp on it afterward, and if you did already know it, your eyes won’t glaze over because the way she tells it is engaging.
As the crew explore the other three planets, things get complicated. Technical and ethical challenges arise, and there are hints that all is not well back on Earth. The crew’s ethical dilemmas culminate in one big one, the answer to which is haunting and harks back to an early anecdote from Ariadne about the massive (but often invisible) support system behind every astronaut.
Kat previously reviewed Chambers’s WAYFARERS trilogy and found it not very plotty. I would actually agree with that assessment, and I think maybe it works better in this shorter format. To Be Taught, If Fortunate has kind of a slice-of-life quality up until the very end, taking us through the various tasks and discoveries that occupy the crew. It’s a bit like reading field notes, but with more introspection and less dryness. (More than anything, it reminded me of The River that Flows Uphill by William Calvin, a nonfiction book that explains evolution by telling the story of a crew of scientists on a float trip, with the science worked into the travelogue. It’s like that, but in a fictional world.)
I enjoyed To Be Taught, If Fortunate and recommend it as a well-written look at both the wonder of discovery and the ethical responsibilities that might await us in space. At 176 pages, it’s also a low-time-commitment way to find out if Chambers’s style resonates with you. I will probably check out some of her longer work after this.