Novella Review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Voyager (September 3, 2019)
Length: 144 pages
First, let me preface this by saying I am a huge Becky Chambers fan and I loved all three books in her Wayfarer series. However, To Be Taught, If Fortunate is unrelated to that universe and the style of writing didn’t have really have the same charm or engaging feeling as her other books. Of course, it’s possible that it’s because we’re dealing with a novella this time, but overall, I also feel that this book lacks the character-driven magic that I’ve come to associate with Chambers’ writing.
The premise behind this story isn’t a new one: Earth is deteriorating, and humankind needs new places to live. But instead of terraforming planets to suit us, advanced technology has enabled us to transform ourselves to suit alien environments. The book opens on a space exploration vessel Merian, introducing protagonist Ariadne and her fellow astronauts as they awaken from the torpor chambers which have kept them in a semi state of suspended animation by slowing down their aging and metabolism. The small crew of four is on a mission to study a handful of new planets that are lightyears away from Earth, meaning that even though the original plan was to return home after their work is done, everyone they left behind would be dead and gone.
Together with Ariadne on the Merian are also Elena, Jack, and Chikondi. As the ship’s flight engineer, Ariadne’s duties include detailing their mission as well as logging and trasmitting their findings. This book, in a way, is her message sent back to Earth, explaining what they’ve experienced and discovered on the four different planets they visit.
I suppose it’s the way this book is written, where much of it takes the form of a communications report, which made me struggle with connecting to the characters—way more than it should have. That Ariadne is a scientist and an engineer is also blatantly obvious, as our narrator loves to expound on theory and technical details. On every planet we visit, we get in-depth descriptions of the flora and fauna they encounter, the ways they differ from earth lifeforms. Because of this, the biology enthusiastic in me was fangirling with glee, but admittedly the hard science also took a lot away from the character development and dynamics, the elements which made Chambers’ Wayfarers such a joy to read.
The book is also divided into four short linked tales, which goes on to further fracture an already limited narrative, this being a 144-page novella and all. While I was fascinated by the sights and sounds the crew documents on the different planets, as well as the multiple adaptations their bodies had to go though, I wish the characters themselves had gotten the same level of attention. Clearly I’ve been spoiled by the author’s previous books, which were packed with poignant and emotional themes and very human stories.
For fans of stories about space exploration and colonization though, this book will be a treat. Obviously, each planet the Merian crew visits offers its own problems, some more challenging than others. Everything from geography, climate, and the local wildlife needs to be considered. Ariadne is a very sharp and introspective narrator, and through her eyes we see how she works through possible solutions to obstacles, using knowledge she knows from everything from chemistry to astrophysics, and we even get plenty of her philosophical musings besides.
As I said, To Be Taught, If Fortunate wasn’t a bad book. However, had this novella been a full-length novel with a bit more in the storytelling and characters department, I might have enjoyed this one a lot more. It feels quite different—and it is quite different—from what I expected from Becky Chambers, and I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to see as much of her excellent characterization this time around. That said, I do love that she is flexing her writing muscles and trying something a bit more complex and cerebral. I’ll still look forward to everything else she writes in the future.