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To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
4.5
Book Name: To Be Taught, If Fortunate
Author: Becky Chambers
Publisher(s): Hodder & Stoughton
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Release Date: August 8, 2019

Have you heard of Becky Chambers? If you’re a regular reader of Fantasy-Faction, then perhaps you remember an article about her back in August 2018. Jessica Juby reviewed Record of a Spaceborn Few, where she chatted about Chambers’ Wayfarer series, how she was able to go meet Chambers (be still my heart), and sang the praises of Chambers’ then newest book. (I also adore that series, just FYI, in case you needed a second recommendation. Her work is amazing!)

Well, Chambers has another new book on the shelves, To Be Taught, If Fortunate—a novella untethered to her Wayfarer series, but just as grounded in the fabulous storytelling we all know and love. I found this novella on my recent trip to New York while on a family vacation. It was tucked away in a cute indie bookstore called McNally Jackson sat just outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the original one, not the new one). I dragged my family inside the bookstore because we had some time to float around before a tour. And because being the book nerd that I am, I would, of course, go in. (We went into quite a few bookstores during this trip.)

I contained my glee over the new purchase long enough to not crack open the pages until the flight home. We live in Alaska so flying from New York meant I had more than enough time for a space adventure.

And what an adventure is was!

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a quiet story. It follows the path of flight engineer Ariadne O’Neill and her three fellow astronauts—Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo, and Chikondi Daka—as they embark on a longtime journey through space. Their mission? Study four distinct planets and bring back their scientific discoveries to Earth.

The book is creatively formatted into a message sent back to Earth asking the reader in the very beginning to at least “Please Read This” out of everything else in the book…then, if necessary, the reader could skip to the end. (I didn’t. Who would?) It is further split into four sections and in each one, Ariadne discusses the wonders of the new worlds and what it means to be human alongside these strange places so unlike Earth. The planets—Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum—are vastly different and the crew must modify their own bodies in order to be able to interact with these new surroundings. For example, the crew can absorb the harsh star radiation. I particularly liked the sparkly skin addition, so they could see each other in low light.

On each planet, we get an amazing amount of detail as the crew begins and ends their mission of gathering data and laboratory research. The worlds are so unique and astounding I felt like I was actually there! (Though, perhaps on Opera that’s not such a good thing. Each world has its odd quirks, you see.) On each planet, we’re treated to a vibrant array of speculative science, too, as Ariadne speaks both the scientific and the laymen’s language.

New worlds and emerging scientific discoveries aside, though, it’s the characters that truly drive the story, and I expected nothing less from Chambers on that front. For most of the story, there are four characters in this book. That’s it. And that’s enough. Relationships form within the four as naturally as breathing, and as with most of Chambers’ work, the way she portrays queer characters is effortless.

The questions posed throughout the novella are science-based ones, but their answers and responses showcase the humanity of the crew as well. We get a deep dive into the characters’ psyche—their triumphs and tribulations—and it is a fascinating read. The characters’ absolute joy found within each scientific discovery—even the seemingly mundane ones!—can’t be overstated. Their excitement is palpable. But it’s that same joy, that same intense excitement, that makes the personal hardships this crew faces throughout their journey all the more difficult to bear. It’s a wonderful rollercoaster of emotions.

The biggest flaw? The ending gut-punched me…and not in a good way. I actually had to put the book down and walk away from it for a little while, even before I could write this piece. The story had been a crescendo to a super interesting plotline, and the end crashed down a bit harder than necessary. However, much I didn’t like it, though, within the confines of the story, an ending like that made the most sense. I can’t fault Chambers for sticking to her idea.

Overall, the story, worldbuilding, and characters all made me adore this book and I am so, so glad I picked it up. It’s a slow, thoughtful meditation on what it means to be a scientist and a human being.

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