A stand-alone novella from the award-winning author of the Wayfarers series
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. They can produce antifreeze in subzero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to journey to neighboring exoplanets long known to harbor life.
A team of these explorers, Ariadne O’Neill and her three crewmates, are hard at work in a planetary system fifteen light-years from Sol, on a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds. But as Ariadne shifts through both form and time, the culture back on Earth has also been transformed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the story of the wonders and dangers of her mission, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.
I’ve been looking forward to reading this novella ever since I read the synopsis. I was not disappointed: this is an engaging, very well-written novella about exploration and the decisions and ethics that surround it.
Like many people, I grew up watching sci-fi stories about exploration (Star Trek is perhaps the most obvious example). As a result, I’ve always been interested in stories that contain an element of exploration. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is presented as a record put together by a team member of Lawki 6, a long-distance exploration and research expedition. It is an account of everything they have been through, and some of what they have seen on the planets they visit. Over the course of the book, Chambers unpacks the characters and their backgrounds, personalities, and their various scientific sensibilities and specialties. Even though the story is brief, each of them feels real and interesting in their own right.
We are given hints of events back on Earth (the crew receives news updates every so often). This forms the backdrop, of course, but the majority of the novella is given over to some fantastic world-building and description. Chambers takes the Lawki 6 to four planets, each with different climates, gravities, and of course flora and fauna.
We get a pretty detailed accounting of their methods and the ethics of exploration — how do you observe without altering, for example; and what are your responsibilities when it comes to cross-contamination and decontamination? There is one particularly heart-breaking scene… Chambers also introduces a new take on how humans would handle the different climates, etc., of these planets: each new planet, they wake up from torpor (suspended animation) with new attributes that will allow them to better function on the planets. For example, they have increased muscle mass for planets that have higher gravities, or bioluminescent skin for those planets with low levels of ambient light. I really liked this aspect of the story’s science.
While I enjoyed everything else in the novella, the ending left me feeling a little disappointed. It’s hard to go into it in any detail without spoiling the ending, but I will just say that I didn’t buy the characters’ decision. In fact, I thought they acted out of character, given the circumstances and characters involved have been explained. There are three options proposed, and the one they choose seems self-defeating given all of the information they (and therefore, we) have.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this novella. Chambers has a gift for description and writing the ‘quiet’ moments between characters. If you’re looking for a sci-fi story that isn’t about action, thieves, or war, then I would highly recommend To Be Taught, If Fortunate. If you haven’t tried Chambers’s writing, yet, then this would also serve as a great place to start, before diving into a full-length novel or series.
Now I just have to get caught up with the Wayfarers trilogy!
To Be Taught, If Fortunate is published by Harper Voyager in North America (September 3rd) and Hodder & Stoughton in the UK (out now). The author’s Wayfarers series is also published by Voyager and Hodder.
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Review copy received from Voyager, via Edelweiss