Review of ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ by Becky Chambers

Through the method of Somaforming, which allows for humans to transform themselves to suit their environments, astronaut Adriadne O’Neill details and muses on the exploration and discoveries of four planets in the Zheni star system with the crew of the Merinian, hoping that someone at home might still be listening.

And now I get to review it.

Review

It’s hard to say what I liked more about this novella: the short, not-in-the way worldbuilding for people who haven’t been introduced to the Wayfarers series; the characters; or the awe and wonder so wonderfully communicated as to make you believe not only in the mission Ariadne embarked on, but the rationale for doing it too.

This is a novella that explores the question of ‘What if humans were not terraformers, but explorers? Not ruthlessly cutting down planets for colonization, but doing their utmost to preserve and document it?

To explore this question, we have the OCA; a crowdfunded initiative to get people back into the stars, following the disappointment of corporations and governments for getting them back up there. We have the technology of somascaping, which modifies humans for the target environment they want to go to. And more importantly, we have the characters who will tell you about such an attempt to preserve and document.

The story starts with a short letter from Ariadne directed to the reader, and a warning. The contents of her messages are incredibly important, but that this is likely a one-way communication; it’ll take 14 years for any reply to arrive. That she doesn’t have time to hand-hold you through the technicals of what she’s about to say, but that she’ll try be on the level with you. That you, the reader, could skip to the end and reveal the surprise, but that you won’t understand the context for why what she’s saying is important. In a few short paragraphs Ariadne attempts to (and in my mind) connect to you, the reader, and put you into the state of mind you need to be in to go forward.

Ariadne immediately throws you into the context of the times that she grew up in, why it’s important, while setting up an intertwined character development and worldbuilding with some absolutely memorable quotations that just stick with you.

I don’t know what it was like in those lonely years before, when our view of Earth’s place in the universe was one of a solidary haven, an oasis in a galactic desert. In some ways, I wish I did.

Ariadne

And that’s what I like about Ariadne. She made a promise at the very beginning to try and share the dream that got her to the stars, and oh does she deliver time and time again; be it through expressive one-liners, or explaining complex discoveries in the same manner of a teacher getting their students excited into a topic, or just simply recalling the simple history of how she managed to get to where she is.

Ariadne is not the only one on this mission either. Accompanying her is a small but tight cast of adults who all have very clearly defined skills, personality, and more importantly, voice. Those last two are important as I was struck by almost immediately was how easy it was to get an picture the characters involved through the first lines of conversation that came out of their mouths, and the subtle body-language that Chambers sprinkles in to the mix. These are adults, experts at their respective fields, who are entirely comfortable with each other and themselves, and who have worked with each other for years. They’re a wholesome little family unit and it gave me warm fuzzy feelings to peek in on their domicile life every now and then.

The other thing I think is worth mentioning is the worldbuilding. Despite this being a novella Chambers takes the time to explain, through the character of Ariadne, the world to explore the question posed. I was particularly struck by Ariadne’s description of an OCA campus, and the ‘Tree scene’. I won’t spoil it for you here, but suffice to say it made me put the book down for a moment and go “Wow, holy shit.” This is a novella that hammers home the point again and again that science and space exploration is not some macho-individualist ‘winner-takes-all’ pursuit; it’s a discipline built on the contributions of thousands people. The tree-scene is only one of many memorable moments Ariadne shares; she regularly delivers on her promise to make me excited for the scientific discoveries while explaining them to me like a freshmen at a university course. While I won’t ace any test on the subjects, I do get to understand the importance, and feel excited when Adriadne feels excited.

All in all: I laughed; I cried; I feel sad. This is a story about hope in a rather hopeless time. Adriadne, if you’re out there, I hope you know I read your letter. I hope you can hear me answer Yes to your question.

Rating 5/5

Amazon Link

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