To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Published: 9/3/19 by Harper Voyager
Genre: Science Fiction
Ariadne 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.
I’m speechless at how much thought went into this short novella. The detail and insight is mind-boggling. These four intelligent humans aboard a spacecraft for ages, and the thoughts that go through their heads while they make incredible discoveries is worth the five-stars I’m awarding it. I understand that this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine, and I don’t even like tea.
It’s the turn of the 22nd century, and the four main characters are on the spacecraft, Merian, and they are making their way to other planets and other extraterrestrial bodies—icy moons, dwarf stars, super-earths, etc. They are part of the OCA—Open Cluster Astronautics—a citizen-funded spaceflight. The Lawki 6 mission is to focus on finding habitable worlds.
It’s been 50-years since they left Earth and their families behind. They awaken from torpor, which stalls the clock for the human travelers, and in twenty-eight years of space travel, Ariadne only aged two-years.
Cells divide and the heart keeps beating. We buy ourselves time while in torpor, not immortality.
They use something new called somaforming—an enzyme patch that gives the body anything extra they need to survive on other worlds.
Aecor is nothing but ice. The ice appeared black because of the sun.
They deem it as a future site for long-term ecological study.
The right things mattered on Aecor. 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.
Mirabilis is the super-earth I referred to earlier. It’s double the size of Earth and body weight doubles. Everything becomes a difficult task, including wearing clothes.
Ariadne goes into discussing how bats and bees both have wings, but they do not come from the same ancestor. They are from “wildly divergent evolutionary paths, resulting in the same essential means of locomotion. ”
It was little details like that throughout the book that kept me fascinated! It was so interesting to get this odd stream of consciousness.
They knew there was life on Mirabilis, but they didn’t expect to find what they did.
Chikrondi accidentally brings a creature on the spacecraft with him and had to kill it by shooting it five times. Elena definitely blames him for it, because that’s her just personality type.
When they finally sit down to watch old news, they came across a video that told them that funding was low, and there was nothing to explain why that is. There were no other videos explaining the reasoning behind it.
Opera is a more conventional planet. The atmosphere was only 16% the thickness of Earth’s. It’s warm here because of its proximity to its sun, Zhenyi. It does have a cold side though. It’s tidal lock―the same face is always pointing toward its sun. It’s a place where the living organisms either died off, or they never began in the first place.
Lawki 5 gets a hold of them, and tells them that they are headed back to Earth. They’re assuming that Earth was affected by a geomagnetic storm and that is why contact is nonexistent. They have damage to their hull though. They could burn up during re-entry. Unfortunately, Lawki 6 were never contacted by them again.
They eventually find a very thin river on the deserted Opera.
This is the world where they decide whether they should use the last of their fuel to go back to Earth or to Tiveal―another planet.
They ultimately decide that they are going to be put in torpor until they receive a message from Earth―Yes is Tiveal, and no is Earth.
You must understand the cost here–the reality of what we do. Because sometimes we go, and we try, and we suffer, and despite it all, we learn nothing. Sometimes we are left with more questions that when we started. Sometimes we do harm, despite our best efforts. We are human. We are fragile. Are we who you want out here?
The ending of the novel really hit me. It’s very open, and typically I would rage over that, but I thought it ended the right way. I was satisfied! I don’t need another novel to continue on with. Although, knowing what happens to the mission specialists would be interesting, I’m not going to lie. But if that never happens, then I’ll be quite alright.
Either way, we will carry this torch. All we’re asking is: where will it burn brightest? We leave that question to you.
Ariadne is the flight engineer aboard the OCA spacecraft, Merian. She is the one writing to the people on Earth, in hopes that someone, knowledgeable in science or not, will answer her beckon call. She is a very complex character with a lot of inner thought about the world and other-worldly places. She talks about her home life with her mother quite often. She was such a great character to follow along with. She had her highs, and she had her lows. I’m going to assume that being in space that long would get pretty lonely. You catch a glimpse of that loneliness closer to the end of the novella.
Chikondi is the youngest of the group, but age showed on him the fastest. He had a bond with Ariadne that I didn’t see any others having. He actually talked her out of a life or death situation. It was actually really cute in a depressing way. I think Chikondi is my favorite character. The reader gets to witness him struggle the most. He keeps to himself for the most part. He’s a deep thinker, and he’s good to Ariadne.
Elena is the oldest by nine years. She’s had a lot of space travel experience, and it definitely shines through. She’s very much has a “I’m the boss” type of personality. She takes charge, but she’s sometimes a little harsh. I think they needed her though. Space isn’t something you mess around with, and she did her best to keep everyone in line.
Jack is the the last character, and probably the least important, in my opinion. He is always antsy. I just don’t have a lot to say about him. Not much character development happening on his end. He’s just another mission specialist aboard the spacecraft. He plays an important role in finding new habitable worlds.
Not all the characters were developed as much as I hoped, but for 135 pages of story, they were developed a lot more than I thought possible. They all had little quirks and flaws. They aren’t superhumans, and I’m glad that Chambers exposes that.
If you’re going to go into this for anything, go into it for the writing. I read it slowly, where it is a science fiction novel, and there are facts thrown at you, but it was worth it. There’s a finesse that Chambers has. She can describe an emotion in a way that I could’ve never thought of. The different worlds created in this novel are very specific, but she never focuses on one too long, and that’s one thing I enjoyed about this.
This is one of the best novels I’ve read this month, alongside All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I am slowly becoming a fan of science fiction novels. I know there are some pretty terrible ones out there, but I am making sure to do my research before diving into one. This was easy to read, funny, inquisitive. There were a few things that could have been explored, but for a novella, I think Chambers nailed it! I recommend it, but I do recognize that not everyone is a science fiction fan. Know what you’re getting into before reading this. It’s very much slow-burn. Let the story come to you.
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