To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've read a couple of Becky Chambers' books before, and haven't been
overly impressed. She writes what I call "feel-good" stories, which are
gentle slices of life without too much in the way of overarching plot or
villains. Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing (and apparently
many people do, since she won last year's Hugo award for Best Series).
But I've never been gosh-wow about any of it.
That changes a bit
with this novella. Her stylistic trademarks are still there: nothing in
the way of a villain, and not a lot of real plot. The four people
aboard the exploration ship Merian, launched from Earth in the
early 22nd century, just go about their business of exploring a solar
system's four planets. They don't run into any Alien-type
monsters and none of them dies. But this novella succeeds with me mainly
because of its good characterization, its shorter length (there's less
room to drag, and the reader doesn't have time to realize there isn't
much of a plot), and its unabashed love of science and the scientific
Chambers did a lot of research for this story, and it
shows. While some of her science has been iffy in the past (the
algae-powered spacedrive for the Wayfarers series? Really?), this rings
true. Admittedly I'm not a physicist or engineer, but nothing in here
jumps up to shout "Hell no!" at me, and the narrator Ariadne's love of
what she is doing springs off the page.
We had known there
was life on Mirabilis. The atmospheric data gathered by OCA were
indicative of virtually nothing else. We had not known said life would
be anything like this. This was a jackpot, an offering so absurdly rich
it almost seemed as if the planet was pulling a prank. Have you ever
seen one of those dinosaur paintings from the 1800s, in which the artist
crammed every known Jurassic species onto a single teeming riverbank?
That was what lay before us, only the artist's palette was robbed of
green and blue, and every assumption of vertebrate evolution had been
thrown out the window.
"Camera!" we each commanded, nearly in
unison. Elena looked ravenous. Jack kept muttering "wow" again and
again, punctuated with reflexive swearing. Chikondi wept silently. But I
can't say what I felt in that moment, any more than I can properly call Spirasurculus a
grass. As an astronaut, you know conceptually that you're going to
another world, that you're going to see alien life. You know this, and
yet there is nothing that can prepare you for it. It's going to the zoo
and seeing an animal you've never heard of. It's seeing footage of a
deep sea jelly whose body shape makes you feel as though you're going
mad. It's the uncanny valley, pumped full of breath and blood. That
first moment on Mirabilis rendered me a child--not joyous, like we'd
been on Aecor with our glowing swimmers, but overwhelmed. A toddler
surrounded by the knees and noise of adults, tasked with learning the
entire world from scratch.
That said, the joy was quick to follow.
book ends a bit abruptly, because it is a request from the narrator to
the Earth of fourteen light-years distant, whose infrastructure and
possibly civilization has been destroyed by a solar flare. Should she
and her fellow astronauts use their remaining fuel to visit another
system thirteen light-years distant, or should they return to Earth?
This ending ties into the larger questions proposed by the novella as a
whole--is space travel, is exploration, worth it? Even if, or especially if, there are no riches to be exploited, no planets to be easily settled, and nothing to be gained but knowledge?
questions are asked of the Earth of the future. They are also asked of
the Earth of the present, grappling as we are with a global pandemic and
the looming disaster of climate change. This book, with its optimistic,
can-do storyline, doesn't answer those questions, but it poses them
very well. I hope Becky Chambers writes more stories in this rich vein.
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