To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

(6.9/10) To seek out new life, and new sermonisations

When my lady and I were looking for a cooperative reading venture to balance the avalanche of grimness currently sweeping the world, Becky Chambers seemed a very obvious choice. After all, we’d both loved her Wayfarer trilogy, particularly the way they managed to be deeply uplifting and positive without wallowing in sugar, so there was every reason to expect great things from this, her first non Wayfarer novella.

Set in the twenty second century (far earlier than the Wayfarer novels), To Be Taught, If Fortunate takes the form of a transmission made by Ariadne O'Neill, engineer on board the spaceship Lawki 6. The Lawki expeditions are a series of cooperatively funded space missions intended to explore exoplanets; worlds around stars other than Sol, not for the purposes of colonisation or resource acquisition, but simply to acquire knowledge for knowledge’s sake, doing as little harm and having as little effect as possible upon the environments they encounter. Together with the gruff Meteorologist Elena Quesada-Cruz, gentle biologist Chikondi Daka., and brash geologist Jack Vo, Ariadne undertakes a journey which will last a full eighty years and carry her far beyond the world and time she knows, all for the purposes of discovering new life and unravelling the mysteries of the universe. Yet, even though the Lawki 6 is so far away it takes transmissions from earth fourteen years to arrive, time does not stand still, and even as Ariadne helps the scientists with their work, and all four crew members get swept up with the wonder and scientific toil of their mission, time marches on and The Earth they left behind might not be the same earth they return to.

One thing which makes Becky Chambers’ books so distinct, is that for all the grand science fiction ideas and alien environments, they are very much books about people; indeed I have heard her writing called both “slice of life” and “soap opera” in the past. And her latest novella is no exception, from the very first scene when, awakening from fourteen years of torpor in zero gravity, Ariadne discusses the difficulty of cutting your nails in space, there is a wonderfully immediate quality to the action and a definite sense that though we’re light years from earth, all the same personal foibles and ugly or beautiful necessities of life still apply. This is particularly true given that Ariadne is the engineer of the group, responsible for maintaining the equipment, supporting the specialists, and helping out where she can.

One criticism I have seen levelled at Becky Chambers, is that she sidesteps scientific realism slightly in order to make the points she wants. This hasn’t bothered me previously, since I can readily accept a spaceship powered by algae just as much as one powered by strange alien crystals, so long as the story is good enough. Here however, for the first time she did seem to step a little too far into the magical, giving her characters enzymatic patches which altered them for survival on other planets, going as far as giving them glittery skin (seemingly because glitter is, as Ariadne herself said), just cool, or letting them survive on radiation and a few vegetables, thus negating their need to actually eat.

That being said, for all the magical science, Chambers is careful to keep things real, with the crew needing to get used to their changes in appearance, including aging, as they enter and exit torpor for the trips between planets.

Speaking of their destinations, there is nothing I love more than exploring alien environments, and here Chambers delivers in spades. From beautifully phosphorescent sea life on an ice world, to one planet whose environment is so diverse it makes the Mos Eisley cantina look uniform, indeed my lady and I found ourselves having to reread passages of description over again just to catch every nuance of their sheer beauty and overwhelming strangeness. Combine this with a wonderfully accurate, yet still breathlessly intriguing description of the slow, almost obsessively careful process of scientific research, both its wonder, and it’s daily regular work, and rarely has stepping onto an alien planet felt quite this real.

Unfortunately, where the book fell down for both my lady and me, was in the matter of its characters and development. In A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Chambers gives us a diverse spaceship crew, human and alien, some of whom are friends or lovers, some of whom dislike each other but can rub along together, some of whom have stories to be discovered or relationships to be explored. Here, though all four crew members are distinct characters, and likable enough, they remain fairly static. Relations remain amicable all the way through. Even romantically, Chikandi is asexual and acts as everyone’s brother, whilst Ariadne has a seemingly casual open sexual relationship with both Elena and Jack; though her feelings for Jack are never explored. Indeed, with some of Ariadne’s offhand remarks about not worrying about “who was killing or kissing who”, Chambers even here implied a tacit critique of monogamous relationships (between people of either gender).

Of course, it makes sense that in choosing four people to go off and spend four subjective years together, you’d choose people who could get on, however matters here are so casually friendly they approach insipidity, and romantic relations so casual they appear meaningless. Of course, I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who is very much married to his best friend and life partner, so it is entirely possible that my perspective on sharing and my beliefs on the importance of relationships are biasing my views here.

Despite the crew’s generalised good feelings, there are still of course a couple of crises to deal with, albeit they do not show up until over halfway through the book, however after the crises are dealt with there are absolutely no consequences, no sense of fallout, and know character growth, people just get over things and move on. Even in the crew’s daily life together, where in Angry Planet there were plenty of cases where one crew member’s untidiness or even smell would annoy another, there is literally no tension, or even disagreement at all, something which makes the characters feel almost bland, especially the protagonist. Likewise, despite a conscious choice to sidestep any talk of their families who they’ve had to leave on earth, none of the crew seemingly have any backstory or personal history at all beyond their personality and sexual identity; again a stark contrast to Angry Planet.

With the plot basically being the story of four nice people doing what they love, being friends together and talking about it at great length; character development is almost zero, and Jack, Chikandi, Ariadne and Elena are very much the same people at the start, as at the end. This would not matter if the world or events around them changed, or if they caused certain other things to happen, however, as often with Chambers’ writing the story is essentially a series of episodes; fascinating, gorgeously described episodes, with scientific curiosity aplenty and lots of wonderful alien environments to discover, but still essentially anecdotes rather than an actual plot, indeed the very “observe and have as little effect as possible” credo which informs the crews interactions with the environment, seems to sum up the writing style as well.

Then again, the few crises that do arise, at the end of the second and third episodes respectively, are distinctly nasty and make for some highly tense reading, the one in the second episode in particular is a deeply unpleasant and gut wrenching scene, which sadly is also why I was a little surprise how readily it was forgotten, and how little effect it had on the crew generally.

Unfortunately, where the book really falls down is in its ending. One of the most wonderful things about Chambers’ writing, is that though one can guess some of her political or social views, she never preaches to the reader, even among societies such as the semi utopian, socialist collective in space born few, I still felt like I was exploring a different way of life and set of ethics, rather than just a thought experiment in praise of the author’s views. To Be Taught, If Fortunate however, ends with a full blown sermon on the glories of space exploration and scientific knowledge for knowledge’s sake. What is worse, is this sermon is stated in the faux reasonable tones of someone asking questions, rather than stating conclusions: “You might not think that exploring the wondrous glory of the universe is a good thing, and that everyone should just stay on earth and be greedy, and that is absolutely up to you.” Though I completely and totally agree with Chambers’ principles, and would be the first to contribute were crowd-funded space exploration ever a real thing, at the same time, both my lady and I found the shear fervour of her preaching, the length of the sermon, and the self-righteous tone down right irritating. Another major problem with this sermon is that it ended the novel rather abruptly, not even on a question, but on a character action which seemed nothing short of selfish, and in fact was quite the copout. Indeed, the total lack of compassion shown by Ariadne and her fellow explorers for anyone outside her happy little bubble, when set against what we learn of conditions back on earth left a decidedly bad taste; particularly considering the near miraculous nature of some of the technology they had aboard the ship, and the probable good such technology might do for others.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate has generally received very positive reviews. Ignoring those who praise the book just because the sexual orientation of its protagonists matches theirs, one common thread in many reviews is the book's “uplifting message.” I have no problem with any of the actual ideas expressed in the book; for all I do wish Chambers had at least acknowledged the possibility of some form of faith along with her reverence for life and the universe, the way other science fiction writers like Carl Sagan or David Brin have. It is, however, almost a given that anyone who picks up a book featuring four astronauts on a long scientific exploration of other planets, will cheer loudly for the idea of exploration and spaceflight free of national or corporate interest. Were this a treatise, or indeed had Becky Chambers included her arguments about the validity of scientific knowledge in an afterward, I’d be more than happy to join them. The problem however is that for me, a book, however grand it’s philosophy or however much I might agree with its point, still has to be a good story rather than simply a polemic, and for the first time, this is where Becky Chambers actually fell short, and what might have been a premise I agreed with in another context, simply became an overly moralistic anti-climax, and a major let down to the book’s conclusion.

Despite superficially likable characters, at least a little crisis, and some of the best descriptions of alien life and scientific discovery I’ve read in a long time, I can’t help being slightly disappointed by To Be Taught, If Fortunate. I’d still recommend the book, indeed it’s a testament to the strength of its many good qualities that I’ve given it as high a mark as I have, since undoubtedly, the total lack of character development, and above all the disappointing ending and decidedly blatant proselytising would’ve otherwise marked this one down, as it is though, I really hope with her next book Becky Chambers will get back on form.

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