Book review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
You would expect a science-fiction work about a manned mission to explore the variety of life on four exoplanets to be longer than a novella, and yet Becky Chambers - who is known previously for her work on the Wayfarers trilogy that began with the successful The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - has managed to condense all the excitement, imagination and wonder of such an event down into 132 pages in To Be Taught, If Fortunate. How does she do it?
Well, mainly because the hard science work has already been done for her in many previous, much longer works. That's not a criticism, it's smart as it means the reader doesn't have to waste time going through issues that other authors have covered extensively and in realistic detail. That doesn't mean that Chambers glosses over the hows and whys. On the contrary, she covers the major issues in a few precise and considered details. How to find a mission, how to get a crew to survive such a long journey, how to adapt to their new environments, and what are the kind of serious problems that have to be resolved along the way.
The latter is important because it's the reason why Ariadne O'Neill is sending this message back to Earth, looking for help. Considering the distance, a message will take 14 years to get to Earth and 14 to get a reply, and the crew don't appear to have high hopes of that happening. Ariadne is one of four scientists on board the Merian spacecraft taking the on the first crowd-funded mission to explore three exoplanets and one moon that orbit the red dwarf star Zhenyi. Placed in torpor, the crew have only aged 2 years over the 28 year journey to reach the moon Aecor, before going on to the planets Mirabilis, Opera and Votam in their 80 year mission. The desperate but measured tone of Ariadne's report however suggests that something has gone badly wrong.
Before the recipient of the message finds out what the problem is, Ariadne describes the wonders of the incredible variety of the the landscapes and lifeforms that the scientists encounter on the Lawki 6 mission. All this within the space of a novella, and yet there's nothing essential that feels missing from the account in To Be Taught, If Fortunate, and certainly none of the wonder and imagination that you'd expect from such a mission. There are a few gaps that might niggle about the technology that allows them to travel such distances, and how they maintain 80 years of food supplies for four people when not interfering with the flora or fauna of the worlds they explore, but Becky Chambers is more interested in exploring other aspects of the human experience.
The psychological issues that come with being separated from the rest of the human race for such a long time are touched upon, the different aging processes meaning that they will never see their close members of their family or friends again. The ethical questions about exerting an influence over or inhibiting the development of life on other worlds is considered, as is the essential matter of what makes us human when the scientists have to adapt their physical build in order to adapt to the different pressures and environments of other worlds.
Other authors have considered these and many other questions about space travel for sure, but somehow Becky Chambers manages to condense all of these questions down into a novella-sized adventure where the problems of time and distance come to the fore. It becomes a more pressing matter for the crew of the Lawki 6 mission, not just for the time it takes to send a message home from a distant planet and wait for a reply, but to the greater distance that time places between purpose and action. The relative importance of matters changes over time, and that goes not just for those who journey to a distant planet, with a different concept of time. A hundred years on Earth is also a journey into the unknown.