May 3, 2020

Review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate 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 method.

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.

The 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?

These 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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