To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers

My brain supplied Becky Chamber’s novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, with a soundtrack as I read it. Part of my brain was playing “‘39,” by Queen almost the entire time. Ariadne O’Neill narrates her journey to exoplanets that may support life, accompanied by a trio of scientists. They’ve been dispatched as part of a series of explorations by a vast, non-governmental effort put humans back into space. The goal is not to find new planets for humans or to find exploitable resources. The Lawki explorations are all about gathering information. The prologue of the novella, however, lets us know that something terrible has happened. It won’t be until later in the story that we learned what that terrible thing is and what might happen with the team.

Ariadne doesn’t know who will read her message. She doesn’t know if her dispatches will reach a scientist, like one of the ones that sent her and the team out into space, or by someone who has no scientific training. Because she’s not sure of her audience—and because a lot of emotional things happen on the journey—Ariadne doesn’t write like a scientist or the engineer that she is. She writes like an explorer. She talks about the staggering awe of being the first person to step out onto an alien world, the wonder of finding life forms that no one from Earth could have imagined, and about the joy of being able to gather information that satisfies her deep curiosity about the places she and the team visit.

In just over 150 pages, Ariadne takes us from deep space, to an ice moon, to a planet of amazing creatures, to a terrifying water world, to a tidally locked desert planet that contains an incredible discovery. Each planet presents different challenges, sometimes mitigated by ingenious technology and sometimes by sheer determination. The things that the team find are so consuming and fantastic that it’s little wonder that the team stops paying attention to the news from home. The team spends the time between the planets in torpor; it takes years to get where they’re going. By the time the news gets to the team, it just seems like unimportant noise. Why should they care about this dictator or that cultural figure? Everything changes when the team loses contact with Earth entirely. Do they continue? Do they go back? During the last pages of To Be Taught, If Fortunate, the last lines of “’39” hit me hard: “For my life / still ahead / pity me.”

The novella ends with a question, sent out across the years and miles to whoever might be listening. Will there ever be an answer? This question made me take a step back, to think about the larger questions To Be Taught, If Fortunate brought up. Can humanity get our act together to create something like the Lawki missions? Will we destroy ourselves before we can reach for the stars again? Chamber’s imaginative planets offer more than enough temptation, for me, to hope that our species can find away to explore the universe around us. But exploration relies on a stable base to operate from. Can we save our planet so that we can explore others?

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