To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a sci-fi novella from Becky Chambers, whose Wanderers sequence met widespread acclaim. This novella, though, is something new. And, not to give the game away, it’s rather good. It has a lot of the elements I’ve come to associate with Chambers’ writing: complicated characters with both believable issues and an undeniable warmth. A detailed, vividly imagined world. A story that wants to explore things, to look at both what’s in the universe, and what place humanity has within it. All of that and more help to make this novella a singular experience.
Part of that is the places the story wants to take us. In a not-overly distant future, humanity has reached out for the stars. Their instruments, volunteer search teams willing to go into cold storage, to go to the ends of space, through time, to see things that have never been seen before, and to report it all back to a world that is now nothing but a distant memory. And what stars they’ll see. Each is something unique, and the thrill of discovery for our interlocutors is one that seeps viscerally off the page and into your bones. Each new biome is an adventure, a discovery, something truly new. That isn’t to say it’s always nice, that each instant is one of rare beauty – but each moment is definitely singular. And these worlds – well, the prose is lively, the descriptions sparkling and imaginative. Each of these worlds is somewhere entirely new, and that feeling never fades. I did appreciate that these worlds, their mystery and possibility, are shown to us in parallel with thoughts on our own Earth, whose news remains as interminably unpleasant as ever – and for whom, as ever, hope is never entirely lost. The people exploring the edges of our known space are human enough to want to go home, and human enough to want to keep on going into the dark.
Speaking of which; the text centres around one survey team, as they move from planet to planet, dipping into and out of time like cranes on a lake. In between the descriptions of new worlds, and the surprisingly compelling scientific rigour it takes to explore them, we sit beside these people, and see them at their worst, as well as their best. They are people though. In between their professionalism are under(and over) currents of friendship, the sort of banter that evolves between four people who’ve worked together in close quarters for a long time. There’s wit and sass by the barrel-load, and I found myself chuckling more than once at a particularly clever remark. But these aren’t ciphers either
They’re emotionally present, and if not always entirely honest with themselves about their baggage, at least trying to be. There’s a warmth and strength in the group dynamic, in a small team with a shared purpose trying to do a good job, and also be healthy, and be there for each other. There’s a transhuman element as well, exploring the changes these people have had to make in order to explore strange new worlds; but that sits alongside the human element, and accentuates it. No matter what these people look like, or sound like, or how they feel, or who they feel it for, they’re always people.
That’s a positive message coming out of the text, and one that’s interwoven cleverly through each line of the text. These are people; in their diversity, they find strength, and humanity – and that strength, that humanity, helps keep these people feeling like people as we share their troubles and triumphs across the universe.
I won’t go into the plot, past the exploration of worlds that I’ve already alluded to. But the story is there, between the interactions of the characters, and the new places they set out to discover. It’s in each line of dialogue, each new variety of fauna. There’s stories here about people and acceptance and difficulty and crisis, and each of them feels real. There’s ethical problems and small worries and world-changing choices. There’s some dark moments and choices that have to be faced, and there’s the sort of optimism and hope that makes you want to build In short: it' a space programme all of your own for these people. It’s not a story that relies n explosions and one-liners to get your attention, but it’s a story that will keep your attention by being honest, and by having interesting things to say. In short, it’s a damn good read.
Should you read it? I think so. It’s saying interesting things, asking interesting questions, and doing so with characters I quickly came to care about, in a world that feels very real.