Reviews, Sci-Fi

Review: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

There is no such thing as too many hopeful, optimistic narratives in fiction. Not now, in 2019, and not in science fiction specifically, a genre whose existence is dedicated to the imagination of potential futures. And while she is no stranger to bright, character-based science fiction adventures, Becky Chamber’s most recent novella, To Be Taught, if Fortunate is a step away from her Wayfairers universe into a different kind of story – one with a heart that beats so loud it screams, an enduring love letter to the mysteries of science, with an ending that will strike like lightning as a divide between those who loved it and those that didn’t. 

In an interesting twist on the idea of terraforming – shaping the land to meet the needs of our bodies – instead, Chambers’ intrepid astronauts undergo the process of somaforming during the deep sleep between planets. Through a mixture of various gene replacements, enzyme therapies, vitamin dispersals and the like, our characters wake up with bodies perfect for the planets they explore. Our narrator, Ariadne, and the small team of just three other crew along with her, are exploring a set of distant planets and moons as the geopolitical situation on Earth shifts, growing ever more precarious. Of course, being in the depths of space means they don’t realize just how precarious things on Earth have gotten until it’s potentially too late – leaving the crew with hard questions to be answered. The conclusions they come to will satisfy some and infuriate others in an ending that will most definitely be remembered. 

However, even that brief summation of this short book fails to capture what makes this book such a joy to read. As readers of Chambers’ previous work will know, she manages to capture just enough science in her science fiction while leaving plenty of room for her characters to grow, to mature, to make mistakes and form relationships that bring the vastness of space to the intimacies of human (and alien) nature. This skill really shines in the compact narrative, as does the more episodic style that readers will recognize from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. That vignette-based structure didn’t work for every reader of Long Way, which is understandable, but it’s worth mentioning how much more that format suits the narrative here in To be Taught, as each planet our astronaut crew visits is so disctintly geologically different from the last. It is the geological differences that allows Chambers to rotate the emotional focus of each experience, as the physical and somatic informs the psychological and spiritual. 

The first planet we visit, Aecor, serves a two-fold narrative function. Firstly, it allows Chambers to quickly introduce our known, contained world, a world that is recognizable enough to our own. It is a world where compassionate details reign, where mirrors are placed far enough from deep-sleep pods that waking up isn’t a terrifying adjustment and a casual bisexuality among the crew allows for both relaxed intimacy and Chikondi’s asexual identity. A world where the crew looks forward to updates from home, and dreams beyond the bounds of their current mission. 

Secondly, the discoveries the make on Aecor allow the crew – and Chambers herself – to wax euphoric about the beauty and effervescence that comes with new scientific discoveries. To be frank, Becky Chambers can write one hell of a gorgeous sentence, and it’s on Aecor that we get gems like

We were one being, one moment, all boundary of body and person dissolved in the presence of shared euphoria

I am not a science or maths person, but being on Aecor with Ariadne makes me wish so dearly that I was. 

After Aecor, the crew heads to Mirabilis, and this section is perhaps the most scientifically dense of all the sections. Which is not to say that it is dense – Chambers writes in a way that keeps her science softer, even as she discusses everything from evolutionary biology to meteorology. But this is the section in which the most focus is placed on what it is our astronauts are actually doing when they’re cataloging the life they find. It is also in this section that some of the cracks in our story begin to appear, as the longer and further the crew goes, the less reliant they become on news reports from Earth. As Ariadne becomes more and more-so the only member concerned with opening the status reports that come from Earth, things come to a head when Jack snaps at her:

“‘Listen, every time we watch the news, the air in here gets heavy for a few days. Or longer. It eats at us. Why are we letting something millions of kilometres away and fourteen years behind fuck up our ability to focus on the thing we were actually sent here to do?’ He finished his water. ‘If there’s something important, we’ll get a mission update. But the news – I mean, how does it help me to know that some fuckwit I’ve never heard of is leading a coup, or whatever? It doesn’t. So, that’s how we show we care – by doing a good job. We can catch up on world history anytime we want to. Because it is history by now.’”

This is the first mention of the tension that is beginning to stir underneath everything. Because Chambers is infinitely kind to her humans – and creative in the ways in which she decides to put them through their paces – the tension isn’t related to any interpersonal drama as much as it is the creeping existential dread of time, separation, and what their role is to science versus to the planet that has put them in space to begin with. After all, Lawki 6 – the mission our crew serves on – is a crowd-funded exploration and as the book progresses, we see the dangers that can happen for the individual when the communal begins to break down. As readers, they are a series of interesting questions to consider, especially as we kill the planet out from underneath us and look towards commercial space flight to be even a small part of the solution.

This tension culminates in a traumatic moment in which Chikondi, until this moment a quiet and tender man, is forced to kill an alien who gets inside the crew’s decontamination protocol. It is truly a heart-wrenching and depressing scene, and it’s this moment that makes me tag for ‘animal death’ – because as alien as the animal may be, the effect it’s killing takes on Chikondi is unmistakably similar. It is directly after this incident that Ariadne realizes that the crew is also several news updates short – giving us the first hint that things on Earth aren’t as predictably chaotic as expected. Both of these occurrences begin to push the narrative towards the emotional Dark Night of the Soul moments, which take place on Opera.

Before they can even land, things go wrong, trapping the crew on Opera, a dismal rock in the middle of a raging storm, in which all they can see is rain and the underbellies of the ‘rats’ that are slowly covering the ship from the outside, filling the space with a kind of constant, low-grade noise. The planet is a dim one, and we follow our crew further and further down their own manifestations of resultant psychological darkening – Jack becomes enraged at the ‘rats’, pounding on the walls to try and scare them off; Elena becomes obsessive about checking and rechecking systems and software, convinced she can find a solution to the weather problems that prevent them from taking back off. And Chikondi has fallen into a depression, coupled with a deep-rooted questioning of what, exactly, their mission is worth.

It’s here that we get the second central theme of Chambers’ work – questions about the ethicality of science, the morality of personal sacrifice in the light of the ‘greater good’. In an absolutely beautiful metaphor, Chikondi compares the astronauts’ work to turning over rocks, looking for worms:

“‘‘You always put the rock back. We always put the rocks back.’ 

‘It still hurts before we do so. Is that a fair trade, their pain for our knowledge?…You can only call it sacrifice if it’s consensual. Nobody asked the worms under the rock what they thought about the whole thing.’”

It’s the trolley problem, with the added layer of consent that history has taught us is key to ethical science. Chambers doesn’t come to any conclusions on this question, not outright (although I have my theories on where she lies on the issue) and it’s this lack of resolution to this central question that I think leads to some issues readers have with the ending – which we’re getting to, I promise.

It’s also on Opera that Ariadne begins her own struggles with mental health, as she tries so desperately to take care of the people around her that she loses track of her own well-being. As a fellow enneagram two, I deeply related to this particular style of mental health portrayal, which is a slow and almost imperceptible degradation that’s often not caught until it’s almost too late. Which is precisely what happens to Ariadne. The crew, finally able to secure a launch window, abandons their scientifically useless rock to head on to their next planetary assignment. Once they reach orbit, we watch as Ariadne loosens the tight grip she’d been keeping on her own emotional output that she’s on the brink of making a very dangerous, irreversible choice. It’s Chikondi that pulls her back, in a dialogue exchange that is so poignantly beautiful and deftly handled, it’s worth saving to read in context. This is a dark moment in the book, but it’s tinged with light, like the smallest reddening of the horizon as dawn inevitably approaches. 

Which brings us to our ending, and to the planet Votum. In another stellar display of craft, Chambers deftly recognizes how quickly mental health struggles can change you, become a part of you and the way you interact with the future world in a way that can’t be undone:

I would never again be the Ariadne who had not been to Opera, just as I would never again be the Ariadne who had never left Earth, just as I would never again be the Ariadne who had never left her parents’ home, who had never bled, who had yet to learn to walk. A moth was a caterpillar, once, but it no longer is a caterpillar.

And it’s this inability to go back to the people we used to be – and to the lives we used to know – that gets echoed in this final section and the ultimate ending of the novella. As we’ve now seen multiple times, Votum becomes a geological representation of the mental states of our characters, a kind of sterile emptiness that provides a quiet kind of relief and healing after the constant noise and stress of Opera. There is little life to be found, until a system of caves is discovered, allowing for a rekindling of the spark for science we saw on full display on Aecor. Our crew has gone through the emotional ringer, a cycle of elation and depression that reflects a struggle known by so many of those who struggle with various aspects of their mental health. And on Votum, they’re allowed the individual space – literally, and pun most definitely intended – to begin healing in the individual ways that work for them.

It’s also on Votum, however, that the crew begins to wrestle with how long it’s been since they’ve heard from Earth. They receive a message from Lowki 5, letting them know that they’ve returned to Earth’s atmosphere and found – nothing. No satellites, no response from the surface, nothing. It’s put them in the spot of risking a return, with 14 years of communication time between the teams. And so Lowki 6 is faced with what would be, in my opinion, one of the scariest existential decisions to face: to return home, risk what they find, and help how they can? To stay in space, conduct what research they’re capable of, and die as the universe wills it? Or make for a star-system that has proven to be remarkably like Earth’s atmosphere, hoping against hope for what you might find there?

Complicating this decision is the fact that the Lowki program was a crowd-funded effort, and as such there is the pull of loyalty to the society that sent them to the stars to begin with – a society torn apart by war, ravaged by climate, who sent out the Lowki astronauts as a final bastion of hope. So what does the Lowki program – what do the crew – owe to those who sent them there? What if none of them remain on Earth to begin with? It is an ending that is filled with more questions than answers, and I know for a fact that the ultimate decision the crew comes up with frustrated many readers. However, I think it all comes down to how much you think Becky Chambers ‘earned’ her themes, and if the emphasis the narrative places on community, teamwork, and collectivism for ultimate success is one that you think offsets the questions left open by the ending.

In this reviewer’s opinion, I think Chambers earns the ambiguity of her ending. The cycle we’ve followed Ariadne and her fellow crew through, the emotional growth we’ve seen them endure, the emphasis on the team and on the interconnectedness of science as both an entity and an academic discipline, all of it leads to a point at which the Lowki crew decides to make the ultimate sacrifice, to trust the collective and the future entwining of hope and science. Like in Chambers’ other work, the conclusion is an optimistic one, a trusting one, one that many might think is naive given the world we live in. But what is science fiction if not the chance to hope for hope, to imagine a future that does look different than the world in which we currently live? Ariadne and her fellow crew take the risk and place their faith in the future good of humanity. As a reader, it becomes harder to resist the call to do the same. 

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