Hopeful Space Exploration: Becky Chambers – To Be Taught, If Fortunate

I have read two of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer books – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Record of a Spaceborn Few – one of which I loved and one of which bored me for two thirds only to deliver a great ending. So while the author has been somewhat hit-or-miss for me, there is no denying that her hopeful outlook on a science-fictional future is lovely to read and a welcome change from the darker fantasy books out there.

TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE
by  Becky Chambers

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019
Ebook: 144 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this.

In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.
Adriane is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.
Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.
Carrying all the trademarks of her other beloved works, including brilliant writing, fantastic world-building and exceptional, diverse characters, Becky’s first audiobook outside of the Wayfarers series is sure to capture the imagination of listeners all over the world.

Ariadne is part of a four people crew who is out to explore the universe. Well, parts of it at least. Ari tells her story in first person, documenting everything from waking up from torpor as they arrive at their first planet, to what they find there. Becky Chambers managed to create a believable world with a surprising amount of things to discover, considering how slim this book is.

To make up for lower or higher gravity – depending on the planet – the crew adapts their own bodies to work well in their current environment. So waking up after torpor is, first of all, checking out how your own body has changed. Although that’s only a small part of this book, I found it fascinating. Ariadne may be a pretty regular looking woman on one planet only to wake up super buff on the next. And that doesn’t even take into consideration all the things that change inside her body. We get to know her and her crew mates as much by watching their reactions to their changed bodies as through their actions and dialogue. And they are a lovable bunch!

As the chapter headings will tell you, each one deals with a different planet and I found the exploration of those planets almost as exciting as the crew. They are a group of passionate scientists who clearly adore what they do. Imagine them jumping around in circles like kids when they discover signs of life, or spending hours upon hours looking through microscopes, checking and re-checking data collected from the atmosphere, or simply cleaning and maintaining their tools. These things may sound boring but Ariadne’s voice talks about these things with so much love that you can’t help but get swept up in it.

The plot doesn’t seem to be very surprising or exciting at first. The astronauts go and look at planets, and sure, they discover interesting things there. But because their mission is to visit a number of planets, further study will have to wait for the next crew. They do get updates from Earth every so often – updates which are seriously delayed of course, so the “news” our group receives are always several years outdated because sending information that far into space takes time. Finding out many years after it happened that your hometown has been destroyed, however, does not make the impact any less  hurtful. When messages from Earth stop arriving altogether, the crew knows something is wrong. Although whether it’s that funding for their mission has stopped or something worse has happened, they have no way of finding out.

The planets visited during this story vary greatly and made for a great reading experience. They start out on an ice planet, covered entirely in clear, frozen water. Some of their galactic stops offer a rich environment with plenty for our scientists to discover and study. Some are great, others not so much. One planet in particular was a complete horror show and Chambers deftly conveys the feelings Ariadne must have had during her experience. Things don’t always go smoothly, either, and while the personal relationship between the two men and two women are beautiful, certain situations put a strain on them. I can’t tell you much more without spoiling things and because this book is so thin, almost everything I do tell you is spoilery.

One last thing I need to mention is the ending. At a certan point, you can kind of see where the story is going. Knowing the characters, there are only so many options they would be willing to pursue. Becky Chambers is known for her optimistic, even utopian fiction about alien cultures living together, where everybody is just so damn nice and respectful all the time. While that may be a much needed change from the many grimdark novels of the last decade, it can also feel a little too cheesy, too happy to be believable. The characters in this book also get along beautifully and are almost too perfect to be credible humans (come on, nobody is resistant to mood swings or lashing out unintentionally towards others) – but the ending of this story managed that fine balance between optimistic and realistic. It is the only conclusion to our heroes’ journey that makes sense and it left me with a bittersweet feeling and the knowledge that I’d just read a really good book.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

3 thoughts on “Hopeful Space Exploration: Becky Chambers – To Be Taught, If Fortunate

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