Title: To Be Taught, If Fortunate
Author: Becky Chambers
Published: Harper Voyager (September 3, 2019)
Pages: 153 ( Trade Paperback)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate proves once again that Becky Chambers is the queen of beautifully quiet science fiction that is diverse, thought provoking, and profoundly hopeful.
“We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship – to teach, if we are called upon; to be taught, if we are fortunate.”
Our narrator Ariadne O’Neill is a flight engineer on an extrasolar research vessel who is sent out, along with her crew mates, to explore beyond our solar system. Because they are traveling great distances without FTL capabilities, the crew passes the time in a state of topor (a sort of artificial hibernation) during which time their bodies go through a transformation (called somaforming) that allows them to inhabit the new environments on the planets they’re visiting. But, most importantly, the goal of this mission is not to conquer other planets or establish human outposts across the stars. It’s to learn, for knowledge’s own sake.
“I’m an observer, not a conqueror. I have no interest in changing other worlds to suit me. I choose the lighter touch: changing myself to suit them.”
The novella is broken up into 4 distinct sections, one for each of the planets the crew visits. And, as Ariadne tells us about their experiences in these places we learn more about her fellow crew members, and the way they view scientific discovery and humanity’s place in the universe. While this is definitely a character driven story, there are plot events that happen which test the strength and resiliency of the crew. Each mission brings new challenges and new questions about value of what they’re learning and the cost with which they’re learning it.
This story is wonderfully diverse. There are trans, ace, and queer main characters, POC main character, a F/F relationship, and polyamory. And, I especially loved the discussion about how a friendship/intellectual relationship can be just as profound and important as a romantic one.
“Don’t believe the lie of individual trees, each a monument to its own self-made success. A forest is an interdependent community. Resources are shared, and life in isolation is a death sentence.”
But, I think what I love most about this novella, is that it asks something of the reader. Chambers isn’t just telling us a beautifully moving story (though it is a beautifully moving story), she’s asking us to consider what we believe, what we value. What is the purpose of humanity? Of scientific discovery? Where do we draw the line? And who gets to decide that?
I do think the ending of this novella will be quite divisive. People will either love it or hate it. But, for me. I think it made sense given what we learned about the characters and the way they view the world.
“The amount a person can spare is relative; the value of generosity is not.”
If you’re looking for some inclusive short fiction that asks some big questions about what it means to human then this is the one for you. I can’t wait to see what Chambers does next.