Becky Chambers’ first novella is a story that considers the tentative deep exploration of space. And like all of her books, it abides by the two tenets of Chamberism (it’s a thing, don’t look it up) – optimism and inclusiveness.
The optimism in humanity is palpable: the space missions are not publicly or privately funded, but instead come through the third sector and are backed by citizen donations. There’s no ulterior motive, a la Cold War-style, no shareholders to appease. It is the gaining of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. In addition, throughout the mission, the astronauts are endlessly responsible in their exploration. Before stepping on each planet, they repeatedly stop to consider their effect on the foreign ecosystem. The casual and optimistic manner in which Chambers builds her futuristic vision makes for wonderfully enjoyable reading.
Secondly, an enormous diversity is represented with the novella’s small cast of four characters. Remarkable in simply how hardly remarked upon they are, the astronauts’ personal facets are brought up casually, when relevant, taking science fiction forward another important step towards transforming its norms. In addition to modernising social norms, Chambers futurises them by continuing to refine her skill in applying the found family trope with relationships that transcend the concept of ‘standard’ current day romantic and friendly relationships.
As discussed, most importantly, these two themes are not commented on much, they’re just there. More focus is given to the science. The book is harder sci-fi than the Wayfarers series – Chambers goes into detail discussing how space travel works and its ethics, what somaforming is (sneaking in some biopunk), and the vastly different planets and their indigenous populations with gleeful enthusiasm that is impossible to not share while reading.
(As a side note: due to the above point, after reading To Be Taught, I’m convinced that Chambers could write a fantastic, easy-to-understand non-fic on space exploration.)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a love letter to the very concept of scientific discovery, human progress and humility, and the drive to learn – a fact clear from the beginning given the humble title paraphrased from former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s speech. Becky Chambers has carved out her niche in science fiction and fulfils it adroitly; those who enjoy Wayfarers will savour this novella (though may chafe at the shorter length), those who haven’t will find this a perfect litmus test for her body of work.