This past weekend, I traveled to outer space. I didn’t visit NASA, I didn’t pay a large sum, and I didn’t undergo any specialized training–and in fact, a part of me still lingers in space, floating in a detached wonderment, content and untethered. To accomplish this intergalactic voyage, I immersed myself in the cosmic tale of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers.
Chambers’ 2019-published science fiction novella comes to us as an echo from the future, begging us to read its enclosed saga and foreshadowing some mysterious and foreboding circumstance. Narrator Ariadne sends her message out to the void, with the eagerly kindled hope for a reader’s eyes or listener’s ears. She doesn’t know who will receive her words, or when, or where, but she sends them all the same and lays bare her honest account.
In Ariadne’s own voice, she describes the events which led her and her three crewmates to their current situation. Near the end of the twenty-first century, Ariadne and her team embark on a celestial research voyage to examine a predetermined map of planets and their environments, including any possible life forms. Far-reaching as the planets stretch, Ariadne acknowledges that by the time they return to Earth, it is unlikely that many, if any, of their loved ones will still be alive. It is a journey for those who are more passionate about their fieldwork and curious of the cosmos above them than anything else, and each crewmate has their own specialized area of interest. For Ariadne’s role, she is the engineer and an adventurer at heart. Concise yet descriptive, this novella chronicles their interactions among four planets and the challenges and rewards encountered upon each.
It is rare for me to read a book which so acutely resonates with me. To contextualize my reading habits, I will explain that during high school, I fell into a science fiction phase during which I wrote and read the genre (as well as speculative fiction) avidly, delighting in the imaginative potential of such realms. Since then, I have forayed mostly with literary fiction, only recently dipping back into this sci-fi genre, and appreciating the brevity of novellas which better lend themselves to my more demanding student time constraints. To Be Taught, If Fortunate will be a favorite of mine for a long time to come.
Often, science fiction can be narrated in vague and muddled description, dried out with droning third person garble. With Chambers’ novella, I was immediately drawn in by the narrator’s dynamic and compelling voice, which blended the enthusiasm of a science nerd with the believable yet fantastical wonder of a future world. Chambers accomplished an incredibly agile merging of just enough “real” science with just enough “imaginative” science, which is informed by not only Chambers’ own love of this subject but also her consultation with scientists, such as her mother Nikki Chambers.
While reading, I was entirely absorbed in the mystifying landscapes of the unknown planets traversed, as I discovered more about each ecosystem alongside the band of astronauts. I treasured reading about the foursome, each with their own niche specialty, exemplifying their own unique array of qualities while forming a diverse yet compatible group. Of the four, one of the characters is asexual, another is trans, and Ariadne herself is bisexual, so I adored the casual yet respectful inclusion of a variety of individual backgrounds.
Moreover, the length is just enough to immerse the reader within the otherworldliness while concluding its journey with an intuitive finale. The ending is powerful, and with a 1977 quote, gives context to the title’s original inspiration. While I could have read a far longer account of this narrative, I was satisfied with the open ending and overall impressed with this brief yet impactful novella.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate delivered all I needed and some I didn’t even know I needed. For novice science fiction readers, this novella will be a brilliant gateway work into the genre, or for those seeking some light interstellar travel. It has solidified my love of science fiction, and moreover, my decision to read A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the first in Chambers’ Wayfarer series. Until then, I will be humming “Space Oddity” from far above the world.
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