To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a 2019 science fiction novella by Becky Chambers. Close to the end of the 21st century, science has made a breakthrough in space exploration. Using a revolutionary method called “somaforming”, an astronaut’s biology is synthetically supplemented by a patch worn on the skin, allowing them to survive the harsh conditions of interstellar travel and other planets. Instead of trying to alter the destination, we alter ourselves.
With this bold new technology on hand, a number of manned missions have been launched to survey exoplanets suspected of harbouring life. Ariadne O’Neill is part of one such mission, Lawki 6, along with three other scientists, to explore four worlds in a system 15 light-years away from Earth. Arrival on each world brings unique changes to their bodies, alien landscapes, and news of an ever-changing Earth as the years back home pass them by.
Though I read a fair amount of science fiction, this book was a surprising and welcome change of pace. While many others deal with adventure, politics, and drama, this was rather grounded and optimistic. Somaforming and the “torpor” the characters go under to hibernate during space travel serve as plausible and useful devices to address more realistic hurdles and ultimately enable the characters to survey these worlds relatively unfettered. Rather than being about something going wrong in their mission—a mechanism failing, hostile lifeforms, or questionable crewmates—this is a story about the triumphs and tribulations of field research.
I expect for some their mileage may vary with a book like this, which puts emphasis on the excitement of scientific discoveries that are entirely fictional. Nevertheless, it worked really well for me, as Chambers grounds these discoveries in believable scientific procedure and practices. I was especially fond of their system of taxonomy when cataloguing the lifeforms they encounter. A great balance was struck between specific details and abstraction, giving me a nebulous idea of what they’re studying that I can breathe further life into in my own imagination, while also sounding like a realistic approach to categorizing extraterrestrial creatures.
It’s not just encountering alien life that is exciting either, but what they discover about that life. Chambers goes about explaining this in a very accessible way too, such as when examples of convergent evolution on Earth are explained to highlight how different some of the lifeforms they encounter are. This excitement over discovery is framed really well too, as the novella itself is a message Ariadne is transmitting back to Earth, with a goal in mind. This gives strong narrative purpose to what might otherwise be seen as meandering on the part of the story, as creating engagement with these discoveries is the point, while also leaving the reader in some suspense as to the nature of their impending dilemma.
Ariadne and her crewmates were personable enough and each had their own sense of humanity to them, though they fell into fairly archetypal roles. Their mutual trust and care for one another, as well as their shared enthusiasm for their mission, bolstered the tone of the story further. It was honestly refreshing to have a cast of characters feel so naturally simpatico with each other. The story may be grounded in science trying to be as plausible as possible, but dispassionate characters going through the motions would have inspired a lot less enthusiasm. They may not have been especially deep, but I grew to care enough about them fairly quickly that what mattered to them also mattered to me.
The crux of the story, which we learn about near the end, inspired the most mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, it was built up to with a very relatable anxiety about space travel, concerning both the matter of getting home and the amount of time passing by on Earth thanks to relativity. I found this largely compelling, as the mounting concerns began to compromise the meaning of all the great work they were doing and making the great gulf of distance between them and Earth all the more sublime and terrifying. On the other hand, I’m not sure I like where things end off. I understand what Chambers was going for, the characters endeavoring to keep the spark of exploration alive, but when considering all factors at play it seems far too foolhardy to me. This being what the whole point of the story was building to only compromised the narrative for me.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate may not have fully stuck the landing by the end, but it is still a great piece of science fiction, giving the reader an outlet of escapism through the plausible rather than the nigh-impossible. Its length, 138 pages, is a credit to its emphasis on science and discovery as well, putting more typical narrative concerns like urgent conflict on the back-burner. It kept the story tight and concise without feeling underdeveloped. The characters are each so affable I was easily endeared to them, and while the purpose of Ariadne’s message to Earth is a point of contention for me, the journey itself that she conveys, with all its triumphs and tribulations, had me hooked.
My Rating: 4 out of 5