To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers
In the not-so-far-away future, four astronauts leave Earth to explore interstellar space. Thanks to the unfathomable distance and the time it takes to travel the distance between stars, they spend the majority of the journey in cryosleep, where they age incredibly slowly compared to the people back on Earth, where years and even decades pass while the ship’s crew sleeps. While history is made back home, the crew travels from one planet to another, and their bodies morph to adjust for the conditions on the strange planets they explore and the forms of life they find on these new worlds. But as time passes for all of them, Earth itself becomes more of an abstract concept. What is the point of listening to updates from home when home is utterly changed from what it was when they left? But when a turning point comes in their mission, the crew must decide what home really means. Are they people of Earth, or have they become people of the stars?
Becky Chambers made a splash with her 2014 novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a character-driven story about a different crew of interstellar travelers going about their lives on a mission to a faraway world. To Be Taught, If Fortunate, features another crew of intrepid travelers though their mission is one of exploration. Their decades and longer mission is to visit a series of planets where life has been detected. Not sentient life. Just plants and animals. But the knowledge that there are planets other than Earth that harbor life is a profound development, and the reader shares the crew’s awe (or infuriated disgust, in one instance) when they encounter a vast assortment of strange new lifeforms. It’s easy to fall in love with the various planets– just as the crew does– and the feeling of estrangement from the Earth is strong. When home is utterly changed and all the people who made it special are long since dead, how long does it remain “home”? As the updates from Earth become more sporadic and strange, the idea of Earth and its civilization become more abstract. The crewmembers have their mission to continue, planets to explore, and new life forms to catalog. What is Earth to them?
But the question does ultimately arise in a way that the crew can’t ignore forever. Yes, their world is nothing like it used to be, but even in a galaxy teeming with life, humanity itself is a small and fragile thing, and though the occasional communications between ship and planet are the only connections between them, their shared origins become critical to the crew’s perception of their mission– and of their future.
In To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Chambers is at the top of her game. Though it is a novella with a mere 138 pages, it explores a wealth of ideas: human curiosity, the desire to explore, the wonder of the universe, family, and what it means to be human. It is an entry in that odd little genre known as “hopepunk”, where virtues like hope and kindness are seen as strengths and not as weaknesses, and empathy itself is something of an act of rebellion. The crew’s love for each other and their concern for the lifeforms they encounter is the driving force of their lives as they travel among the stars. They do not grow cynical over time or with the bad news from home. Instead, they continue to care for each other through thick and thin, and when faced with the most important decision of their lives, they remember their basic humanity and the connections they have with the people back home, on Earth, even though they’ve never met them before.
For those tired of the constant parade of grimdark novels and nerve-wracking news headlines, Becky Chambers’s work is a welcome balm, and To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a five-star work from a shining star in the world of science fiction and fantasy.