TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE by Becky Chambers, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE by Becky Chambers, Review

Alexander Wallace surveys the future.
I have spoken before of how, when looked at from a particular point of view, the very idea of putting people into space looks like complete and utter lunacy. Here, I’ll consider taking that argument a bit further: the very act of innovating, of doing something earth-shaking, can be considered to be dangerously reckless, not just to one’s immediate surroundings but to the entire species. One could argue with some intellectual merit that there is something deeply irresponsible about creating the atomic bomb or the airplane or the artificial satellite without considering the consequences of such inventions.

It is that sort of question that To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers seeks to reckon with.

This novella was nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella. It did not win (it was beaten by This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone), but I would argue Chambers deserved it (she was tied for third place in my mind with the entries by Ted Chiang and P. Djèlí Clark). In many ways this is a haunting book, and a short one; you can have your mind blown in a sitting if you’re sufficiently dedicated.

The world of this novella is one that has successfully beaten back the ravages of climate change; Chambers makes the astute observation that you can only focus on things like space exploration when your world isn’t falling apart, and as such there was a period before the events of the novella when there wasn’t much progress in that area due to the ravages of of a neglected Gaia. It’s a premise that sounds very much like something Kim Stanley Robinson would concoct, and I appreciate that by being a fan of his. It’s an optimism that states that a new world, a better world, is very possible but will require expenditure of blood, tears, and sweat.

It’s that world that sends an exploratory mission to survey several newly discovered planets orbiting solar systems beyond our own. All of these are teeming with life; Chambers spectacularly brings out the living pulse of these alien ecosystems. On that simple level of being an adventure story, this novella works.

But Chambers seeks to do more than just awe you with alien vistas and species. This is a deeply human story. All the astronauts herein are brought vividly to life as they are shunted forth via rocket to the final frontier on a grand exploratory mission, a futuristic successor to the likes of the voyage of the Beagle. But they are not Campbellesque cardboard cutouts created to explore an idea; you get to know their struggles and their follies and their exultations. Chambers knows very well that when we go into deep space, we will still be very much human beings.

The real philosophical meat of To Be Taught, If Fortunate comes in well into the plot; I will not spoil it because it makes up so much of the impact of the story. What I will say is that it is that it achieves a rigor and a depth that rivals any of the Hugo-winning classics from the Golden Age of Science Fiction and onward from there. It is a story that concerns the future of our species, and who can morally make a decision to alter the course of human events.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is so many things: character study, space exploration story, and deep interrogation of what it means to decide the future. This was a book that deserved some recognition, some award, not just a nomination (albeit a very prestigious one indeed). This is a book that will be read years in the future, as we have to reckon with the its ideas in real time.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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