To Be Taught, If Fortunate – by Becky Chambers

I thought I knew what to expect from Becky Chambers: a futuristic setting, lots of cosy slice of life scenes, a very natural representation of queer characters, but most importantly an endless supply of hope and optimism. Her books are generally what I call “comfort reads”, in the best possible sense. Does this novella match the same description? Yes and no – let’s see why.

Title: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Author: Becky Chambers

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date: 8 August 2019

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 153

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: To Be Taught, If Fortunate follows four astronauts on a science mission beyond the Solar System, exploring several planets to map any trace of extraterrestrial life. As their journey proceedes, however, they realise they’re no longer receiving their scheduled communications from Earth. Later they discover that Earth’s technological capablities have been crippled by some massive disaster, which implies that they may be the last astronauts in history, and rises some disquieting question on the fate of humankind.

Analysis: The story is told in first person by Ariadne, one of the astronauts, in what is shaped like a hybrid between a field report and a bittersweet letter to send back home. As she writes, Ariadne has no precise data on what’s happening on Earth; not knowing if her message will be received by scientists or by laypeople, nor to what extent anyone will be able to decypher her report, she tries to be as clear and informative as possible – which doubles as a very convenient way to provide the reader with all the necessary information on the setting. Given the circumstances, her message is also charged with nostalgia and emotion, making even the most sciency parts very human and personable.

The novella, at first, portrays a word where humankind seems to have successfully overcome its most imminent challenges; where scientific advancement is largely disinterested and motivated by a collective love for intellectual pursuits – that is to say, the typical setting we’ve all come to expect from Becky Chambers. Similarly familiar is the relaxed pace of the narration, that doesn’t feature much action, focusing instead on the sheer love for discovery and learning, as well as the warm relationships between the main characters (whose characterisation is admittedly a bit thin, but there’s only so much that you can cramp in such a short novella) . Even the scientific advancements featured in the novel speak of a more sensitive approach to the cosmos – case in point, the technology that allows astronauts to adapt their bodies to the habitats they explore, instead of altering other worlds to suit their needs.

Since the beginning, however, an ominous suspicion looms over the otherwise lighthearted narration. As the story moves on, each mission becomes more and more tense, both because of the lack of communication from home, and because their experiences on each planet aren’t always free of trauma and grief. In the end, when we learn that a natural disaster has left Earth in dramatic conditions, characters are forced to decide whether to go home, knowing that they may have no other chance to study the universe; or to explore yet another planet, hoping that their civilization will be able to recover quickly enough to reach for them, but accepting the risk of a premature and solitary death if that’s not the case; in the end they opt for the latter option, betting everything they have on their love for knowledge and their trust in humankind.

It is definitely a much darker twist than I’d expected from the author, although at the same time it comes with its own hopeuful message, if very bittersweet. It’s also worth noting how the rising tension and angst that accompanies each stop of the journey does not shatter the solidariety within the group; the four astronauts aren’t always on the same page, however in the end they prove to be able to support each other and function as a team even while facing the most extreme adversities – which is why the novella comes across as bittersweet, instead as turning into the straight horror one could easily build on a similar premise.

Conclusions & Recommendations: To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a lovely novella, in its own way: rich of imagination, heart, ethical musing. It is not, however, immediately uplifting as the author’s previous works: it appeals to our highest virtues, but it doesn’t offer a safe reassurance; in the end, it leaves us with a melancholic sense of acceptance of fate, only brightened by a last tiny spark of hope. Anyone who loves quietly reflective sci-fi should definitely read it – however I don’t recommend it as a simple and cosy pick-me-up: for that, you can always re-read the Wayfarer series.

Content Warning: Animal Death – Confinement – Suicidal Thoughts

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