To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

I would like to thank Harper Voyager for an advance copy of this novella in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Publisher – Hodder & Stoughton

Published - 8th August

Price - £12.99 Hardback £4.49 Kindle eBook

In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the galaxy transform themselves.  At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations…. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen lightyears from earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of the journey, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.

Fifty years ago, we saw possibly one of our finest achievements as a species sending the first crews to the moon. Over that period while we have sent Voyager across the stars our desire to explore has been focused on using robots and satellites to reach out in that final frontier while human space travel and humans has really only been orbiting the planet with a few industrialists pedalling their wares wanting to industrialise space and a few tyrants trying to badge a space force to show off their egos. In this amazing novella that instead praises science and human wonder Becky Chambers poses us an intriguing question – why we should go into space? In the process of doing so they also explore how humanity needs each other to survive.

In the 22nd century space flight is now effectively crowdfunded across the world. Thousands of people make contributions to explore the wider universe. No longer a source of national jingoism or business targets this is the simple desire to see what is out there. Ariadne has been chosen for one of the missions alongside the happy go lucky Jack, the experienced and driven Ellen and the scientifically curious Chikondi. They’re on an eighty-year mission to explore four planets spending a lot of the time in induced comas before working a few years at a time exploring the planets’ ecosystems and geologies. But while their bodies are changed through the new science of somaforming that allows a body to survive the cold of deep space and feed on cosmic radiation the crew themselves change as does their home world. The crew have to learn to operate together; to adapt to the world and also the isolation of space travel and ultimately decide where they go next…

This novella is I think one of Chambers’ most impressive work to date. In some ways this is almost on the cusp of being a hard SF tale with a careful explanation of how deep space tupors work to manage the body being asleep for decades at a time as well as the making the reader understand the ethos of somaforming. This is not space mission to show off national pride, conquest or terraform this is a group who want to leave the faintest of footprints behind; mitigating the risk of destroying/mutating new life as much as possible. Somaforming is a brilliantly conceived idea where for worlds far from the sun the body has added light receptors (or as the astronauts point out glittery skin) to high gravity world where the bodies are significantly enhanced with muscles. The astronauts’ delight in being able to cast off a human body and on top of this the key theme is they do the hard work. This is not the world of a one-hour space mission but one when their craft lands the team is expected to spend four years just eloign and cataloguing life. What I loved though is that Chambers does not make this sound boring. She captures and explains the pure wonder and joy of people seeing their first alien life form; the human ability to examine and then understand an ecosystem or different ways of evolution and what this means for understanding our own world. In these section it’s a love-letter to curiosity and our desire to know the universe. Chambers challenges the reader to come along for these science sections and actually get us to understand the ramifications of the discoveries.

Alongside this is the exploration of the human condition and there is a great level of emotional depth that is explored very subtly. Our crews have all signed up for missions that mean they never see their families again. The painful consequences of this are not explored in big dramatic scenes but in a very quiet matter of fact description of standard astronaut operating procedure that manages to be as sorrowful in a way a big emotional family scene probably would not have worked. The way the astronauts change over their missions is fascinating and possibly has parallels to people themselves growing up in a hugely changing world. The joy of the bubbly positive-minded kickstarting community the crew is part of gets reduced as they start to see how the world has moved on and that human development is not just a series of progressions; instead wars and bad governments plus ecological disasters continue and the crew start to hide away from the news plunging themselves into their work.

In the latter half of the novel the crew find themselves stuck in their capsule unable to leave due to adverse weather and that internal isolation starts to have serious impacts on their well-being. Possibly by cutting themselves off from everything they realise they still need a pull to humanity and a desire to explore the universe. This almost feels a metaphor for us in this direst of decades were the temptation to hide from the world is ever pressing but as Chambers demonstrates not always going o have the best outcomes. This however is not a story of people digging deep into their emotional resilience the key to moving forward is the group coming together and supporting one another. They’re not military professional this crew has their own complex emotional relationships with one another sometimes on edge with one another but ultimately knowing this is all they have out many years away from home.  I loved the way that Ariadne realises she is slowly aging but importantly maturing – this is her greatest ambition she is living and knowing she is no longer a wide-eyed newbie is fascinatingly demonstrated in just a few chapters but now her crew has to decide what do they want to do next? 

The ending is beautifully open-ended and gives us the reader a final decision to make for this crew. I think this makes us ask ourselves what we want from space travel and this is a novella where we will be considering our answer and what it tells us about our own ambitions for humanity long after we finish the final page. In an age where space travel feels both tantalisingly close to being back on our agendas yet is being cross-pollinated with nationalism and commercialism to an extent we have never seen before this story is a beautiful reminder that for many of us exploring and understanding the universe is the absolute definition of being human and if we forget that wonder and joy we risk turning ever inwards and harming ourselves and others.