Book review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

One of humanity’s greatest defining characteristics is our aspirational curiosity.

In other words, our desire to know things simply for the pure thrill of knowing things, a quality that while a laudable goal in and of itself, has allowed us to grow and develop like no other species.

While things like incessant war and climate change might indicate that we have been maybe be too successful in acquiring and applying that knowledge, the fact remains that we love to question, ask, discover and learn, a facet of our collective character that shows no sign of diminishing anytime soon.

Not even well into the 22nd century which is when Becky Chambers beautifully human novel To Be Taught, If Fortunate is set, an age in which humanity is beset by a host of earthbound problems but still enthralled by the tantalising possibilities of what awaits us out in the galaxy.

Well, some of us are, anyway.

Officially space exploration has lost out to more pressing issues like climate change, political unrest and famine, but unofficially, people from around the world, rich and poor, young and old, have kept crowdfunding it on an epic scale, sending missions like Lawki 6 out to the farthest reaches of space to continue our unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

“It’s been fifty years since we left Earth, and I don’t know whose eyes or ears this message has reached. I know how much a world can change within the bookends of a lifetime. Causes shift and memories blur. I also don’t know how much you personally know of the universe beyond our home planet. Perhaps you’re one of the knowledgeable sorts I’ve already mentioned, who can rattle off spaceflight history better than even I can and who shares the same goals as me. Or perhaps you’re someone who lives outside my bubble. Perhaps this is all new to you. When I use words like ‘exoplanet’ or ‘red dwarf’, do you know what I mean? This is not a test, and I absolutely do not judge if terms such as these mean nothing to you. On the contrary I want to speak to you as much as I want to speak to my peers – maybe even more so. If I ask what I’m asking only of people who agree with me at the outset, with whom I already share a dream and a language, then there’s no point in asking at all.” (P. 3-4)

There is a passing reference that suggests the four astronauts aboard the Merian – flight engineer Ariadne O’Neill, and mission specialist Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo and Chikondi Daka – are expected to make discoveries with commercial and humanitarian potential but for the greater part, theirs is a mission of restless, almost child-like discovery, seeing whether life does in fact lie in worlds far beyond our own.

It’s almost giddy reading how much these four people, who get on astonishingly well – thankfully Chambers, who is a brilliant rising sci-fi talent, doesn’t go down the tired “fractious crew” route – love the thrill of uncovering the new, the sheer excitement of being the first to step onto the four worlds orbiting the red dwarf star Zhenyi in its habitable zone – Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera and Votum.

Leaving aside the sheer lyricism of these names, which speak of impossibly exotic worlds and the possible life they may harbour, these four moons and planets far, far from Earth, are the very repositories of what humanity has always longed for – new, extraordinary knowledge that has the power to excite and engage simply because it is, but also because of the profound difference it might make to our destiny as a species.

Ariadne, who is our principal narrator, To Be Taught, If Fortunate being her record for people back on Earth about what transpired before, during and at the completion of their mission – she suspects that the people at the crowdfunded space agency OCA have either lost contact or lost interest; she’s not sure which but believes that a record of what they found and learnt on their mission must be preserved for the future – Jack, Elena and Chikondi all go through the same highs and lows that anyone on such an history-making mission would encounter, but by and large they are consumed, in the best possible way, with finding out things.

It’s a joy to read such excitable curiosity spill across the pages as Chambers recounts amazing discoveries that re-ignite a rampant, all-enveloping sense of wonder in the characters and by extension, the readers of the book.

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

What makes To Be Taught, If Fortunate such a consummate joy to read is how Chambers invests each and every moment with accessible, relatable humanity.

Yes, these four individuals are the best and the brightest, the pinnacle of their respective disciplines charged with a wholly extraordinary, and possibly transformative, task, but they are also presented as people, real, flawed, excitable people who have ups and downs, experiencing energising excitement and enervating loss, who react to things just like we would.

Granted we are not on utterly alien worlds, discovering that life really does make a way wherever it may be, but that’s not the real issue here.

What Chamber is most interested in, and what dominates this book in the most sublime and wonderful ways, is how regardless of the circumstance, is how people react to life as it twists and turns out of all expected shape and form.

While Ariadne et al do come across many of the things they were expecting, with the mission playing out as they hoped and dreamed, there’s also a great deal they don’t expect, and the heady exuberance, and occasional grinding disappointment and fatalism with which they greet each new development infuses this book with such a grounded humanity that you are constantly in awe of what we can do as a species purely because we are possessed of such a tenacious, wholly uplifting and thrilling need to know.

“What we want you to ask yourselves is this: what is space, to you? Is it a playground? A quarry? A flagpole? A classroom? A temple? Who do you believe should go, and for what purpose? Or should we go at all? Is the realm above the clouds immaterial to you, so long as satellites send messages and rocks don’t fall? is human spaceflight a fool’s errand, a rich man’s fantasy, an unacceptable waste of life and metal? Are our methods grotesque to you, our ethics untenable? Are our hopes outdated? When I tell you of our life out here, do you cheer for us, or do you scoff?
Are astronauts still relevant in your time?” (P. 133)

But that quest for knowledge is not without its downsides, with Chambers acknowledging that you can’t coast on endless enthusiasm and a giddy sense of discovery forever.

At some point, things will go wrong, the best laid plans of mice and men (and women) will be rent asunder and we will be faced with stark choices about the next steps we take.

Chambers isn’t afraid to take her characters to some fairly dark places but not simply for the sake of it, to serve some imagined narrative need.

The downs in To Be Taught, If Fortunate make perfect sense if you have even a modicum of self-awareness, since while the ups all of experience are wonderful, they can’t be sustained forever, life just doesn’t work that way.

Especially, I suspect, if you’re out in the far reaches of space pushing the boundaries of humanity’s knowledge ever further, with ever diminishing support from home.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a stellar (word use most certainly intended) piece of sci-fi – it’s a glorious piece of futurist escapism, a tribute to the power of the human spirit and the lengths that we are willing to go to learn and grow that never once seeks to coat its story in some kind of unreachable inspirationalism.

While the mission is exceptional, the humanity is everyday and rings true, proving that wherever we go, and whatever we are doing, that our humanity, for good and bad will always out, and Chambers willingness to embrace this truth invests her utterly immersive story with as much emotional evocativeness as daring drive to go ever upward and onward, making this brilliantly good novel one of the essential sci-fi reads of this or any year.

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