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

Becky Chambers has quickly become one of my favorite new authors, with her unconventional, humane view of science fiction settings.  Her characters are almost always likable, conflict is kept at a minimum, and the resolution is usually peaceful.  She looks at futuristic worlds with a sense of wonder and an almost childlike glee, and I’m very happy to participate in this view.  This short book is hardly different from her previous works in these regards.  It may be a little more mature, but it still features a future full of wonders and good people, likable characters and very positive actions by them.  Unfortunately, the novella also feels a little rushed towards the end, which is out of character with the author’s previous works and presented me with an unwelcome surprise.

The story centers on four astronauts as they explore a series of exoplanets.  They are from an Earth not unlike ours, but with a significant distinction: deep-space research is crowd funded.  This has one major consequence for everyone involved: the astronauts, as well as the ground crew, can afford to be idealists and follow their own conscience.  The program sent out multiple missions, and the one portrayed in the story focuses on a string of four planets.

Their goal is to research as much as possible, without being invasive.  They don’t capture and dissect native life, if they find any; they just observe and send their notes back to Earth.  A small crisis, halfway through the story, where the crew is forced to kill an extraterrestrial animal, leaves them all traumatized.

The story begins as the crew wakes up from sleep that prevented their aging.  They soon descend to the first planet, an icy ball covering liquid ocean spanning the entire globe.  They spend several years there, cataloguing all life they are able to spot in the water.  The second planet is much like Earth, teeming with life, and they try to catalogue it all.  Here, however, an animal sneaks on board of their ship, and they have to euthanize it, lest they risk contamination on this planet.  This puts a damper on their voyage, but that’s nothing compared to what awaits them on the third planet.  They manage to land in shallow waters of a largely oceanic planet, just before a major storm pins them down.  Their ship is quickly covered by leech-like creatures, which emit harsh sounds, keeping everyone more or less awake for months, before they can take off again.  Stuck inside the ship, with only leeches and storms outside, their morale and mental health deteriorates to the point of breaking.  It doesn’t help that regular news updates from Earth have stopped arriving, and the crew feels completely isolated.

The fourth planet is barren, but the crew manages to find the beginnings of bacterial life in a hidden cave, and they set to study it.  By that time, they receive a message from another exploratory ship, which returned to Earth, only to find out that a massive solar flare fried all electronics there.  This explains the sudden silence, but also presents the crew with a momentous decision: do they return home, where they can’t do much to help, or do they continue to other planets to explore, contrary to the original plan?  Ultimately, they decide to put themselves back to sleep and broadcast that question to Earth, until the society and technology recovers enough to answer them.

Chambers follows her usual style in this book.  Instead of exploring the futuristic technology, she focuses on how this technology shapes human actions.  And she seems to take great delight to be contrarian: to tackle the conventional “wisdom” of science fiction and turn it upside down.  This is evident from the very first scene where the astronauts wake up from their long sleep while they traveled from Earth.  Normally, you’ll get something like a bright white room with coffins, which open at the same time and out come these perfect human specimens.  Maybe they are a little dirty and need a shower, but nothing more.  In this story, the humans don’t age.  But their hair and nails still grows.  And their bodies are modified to better align with the next planet’s gravity and environment.  What they need is some alone time with a full length mirror, shaver, shower and some toiletries before they are willing to meet other people.

Another great example of the author’s style is the non-invasive research on planets.  Not only does it fly in the face of various colonizer or even conqueror plots (even such stalwarts as Kim Stanley Robinson don’t have a problem to land a group of colonists on a planet, without regard of native life), but the act of naming and categorizing new species is absolutely delightful.  The astronauts are aware of the trap where they assign terrestrial qualities to species that may merely resemble a familiar animal.  As such they name whatever they find according to their appearance, and not their function.

However, the underlying trend, which becomes only apparent towards the end, is the actual crowd funding of the expedition.  Chambers identifies, and I believe she is correct, a self-selection bias that is dependent on the kind of financing a research project has received.  Science fiction is full of governmental or private entities launching research projects.  A great example is the Alien universe, where a large corporation, Weyland-Yutani, finances the research of the Xenomorphs.  Their methods may seem ruthless, with no regard to human life, but in the background sits a group of decision makers whose main goal is to maximize profits, and who are comfortable in their relative anonymity.  These are people who may not be evil, but self-selected and rose through management ranks due to the given corporate culture.  For crowd funding, a wholly different mentality is required.  The people who work for such projects will hold themselves to high standards of integrity, loyalty to their funding base and boundless enthusiasm for their stated project.  This is evident not only from the four astronauts, but also from the limited interludes with the ground crew.  It also fully explains the ambiguous ending of the story.  However, one must approach this book with an open mind, realizing the implication of an entirely new funding entity in science fiction, and realize that the outcome is perfectly predictable.  Otherwise the ending may feel a little unfulfilled.

That said, I did feel unfulfilled.  To me, the book lacked a coherent rhythm.  It started out strong, with setting up a base camp on the first planet, encountering the first species, the explanation of their taxonomy, exploration of the crew members’ different roles and relationships.  The second planet was even richer in life, but it’s not as well described.  The third planet constituted the crisis portion of the story, and I felt like Chambers was uncomfortable spending much time here.  This part could have explored the characters in a much greater depth, but instead everybody was just miserable, and each dealt with it a different way.  The fourth planet was a little more than a footnote.  I personally felt like Chambers had a grand story in mind and gradually got bored with it.  Or she didn’t want to shuffle the planets in a way that would build the story up to a grand finale.  As I kept reading, my interest in the outcome kept dwindling, and only in hindsight, after I meditated on the book, I can at least appreciate the final decision the crew made.  I’d be very hard-pressed, however, to remember any details from the second half of the story…

I think the unique take on space exploration is reason enough to read this short book.  In addition, the subversion of classic science fiction tropes is not only fun, but deeply insightful.  But don’t expect the same engaging story and characters you may have appreciated in the author’s Wayfarer series.  The story and characterization both peter out before the story is halfway over.

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