Ever wondered what it’s like to explore different planets as a real astronaut? Ever considered the possibility that extraterrestrial life isn’t as dramatic as pop culture makes it out to be? Ever wondered what the point of venturing further and further into space might be if there was nothing to go back to? If there was no one to commiserate with for the difficulties, no one to celebrate with for the discoveries, no one to whom all that pain and effort could mean something? Well, those questions don’t have easy answers, but Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a brilliant take on all that.
In general, the realm of Sci Fi is populated by galaxy-spanning wars, by space operas and robots and alien invasions. By electrifying interstellar adventures that could give seasoned adrenaline junkies a heart attack. Not so with Fortunate. This is a journey of astronauts who aren’t caught up in wars or bounty hunts, who aren’t secretly space-trained soldiers or special operatives. These men and women are engineers, scientists, and academics. They travel from planet to planet, exploring and documenting what they find relating to alien lifeforms, and what they do find are often more wholesome than thrilling, more joyous than horrifying, more wondrous than alarming. Imagine rediscovering that the dodo bird still exists in some hitherto unexplored part of Earth. That’s how these astronauts feel, and that’s how Fortunate leaves the reader feeling as well. Ultimately, it is a reflection of Darwin’s time on the Galapagos Islands, a thoughtful travelogue of discovery where the stakes of finding the next astonishing species, of applying all that was taught to get meaningful results in alien fields, is so personal and relatable.
Chambers’ greatest suits are her characters and her writing. This is supposed to be an audio record for the general public, something that anyone could pick up and understand, and as such, it’s written in a very narrative style. A narrated record left for people back on Earth to mull over, understand, and eventually, hopefully, appreciate. All the exposition about various techs, tools, futuristic procedures, and whatnot are handled with tact and woven with personality. All the places they visit are vividly drawn, and for visual readers, it’s never difficult to imagine standing there on strange lands right beside those astronauts. To say all the creatures they discover are intriguing is an enormous understatement.
Then there are the four crew members. The main character, Ariadne, and her companions Elena, Jack, and Chikondi are all fully fleshed out people, each going through their own crises and quandaries through their journeys together. One of the most striking ways Chambers brings them alive is through their interpersonal relationships, which all shift and change and vary just as they do in real life. This is best summed up by how Ariadne glues her companions together, how Elena goes off of her extensive experience to take charge, how Jack balances his enthusiasm with his arrogance, how Chikondi deals with his naivete and the decisions he has to take. There are times when Ariadne is shown to be sleeping with her crew-mates, except Chikondi, who doesn’t have any desire for any such relationships, but the tension in Fortunate is never romantic or sexual. It is built around their professional standing. Fortunate is filled with their conflicts, their moments of trust and caring, their whole dynamic of depending on each other to get the job done. Humans are social creatures who can’t do without one another, and these astronauts prove it time and again.
Like the previously reviewed Circe, this is a slow and ponderous account. True to its form, the ending isn’t a summary encapsulation of everything they’ve gone through. It’s no climactic finale that rewards everything that these astronauts have done over the course of the book. Instead, it’s a step. An important decision taken under difficult circumstances that puts all they’ve accomplished under perspective so that their work can continue. And it works because a scientist’s research never really ends, because an academic’s understanding of a certain matter only ends when one decides it. There is always the possibility of digging deeper, of understanding more. This is exploration in the truest sense of the word, and there is no sky here that can be the limit.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading To Be Taught, If Fortunate. Highly recommended to anyone looking for a story that bases itself on what is realistically possible in the not too distant future, or a slice-of-life-ish novella set in space. It’s short, but packed with an enormous amount of story, character, and heart. It may be a space faring tale, but it’s a story about home. After all, home is where the heart is.