A team of scientists studying a star system far from home send a plea for help to those they left behind. It will take nearly 30 years to get a response. What question is so important it’s worth waiting half a lifetime to get an answer?
“If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this.“
Becky Chambers hits another home run with a stand-alone novella of space exploration and human ambition. It’s framed as a letter home by a team of scientists sent to survey distant exoplanets known to harbour life. Addressed personally to you the reader, the narrator admits they have no idea who you are or what you know, which is a delightful justification for a bit of exposition.
I can get funny about narratives that spend half their time explaining themselves, but it’s beautifully judged here. Whatever may be at stake – and it will take the whole novella to find out – it’s clear that context is going to be important to support a considered response to the question the Lawki 6 team are going to ask. From that stunning opening line, I desperately wanted to know what they needed; the intimate, persuasive address had me all signed up before the end of the first chapter.
This being Becky Chambers, there’s more to To Be Taught than the accounts of painstaking years of meticulous science (although frankly that alone is worth the price of entry). This isn’t some corporate mission in search of profit, nor even nationally-sponsored research for prestige or political advantage – it’s citizen-funded exploration: apolitical, international, non-profit. Crowdfunded science for the sake of knowledge and mankind. And this is why I love Becky Chambers’s work so very much: she doesn’t just throw big ideas out as aspirational popcorn, she gives us a roadmap to hope and to the stars.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Yes, okay, I’m crying too.
Look, I have a LOT of feelings about science and working for the good of all humanity. I am hugely invested in us reaching for the stars. This one hit me right in the feels, gave me a hug to make it better, then spun out a story that put me right back where I started: crying, happily.
And again, this being Becky Chambers, it’s not a team of strong-jawed ex-military white guys who are our protagonists, which just makes it better. As usual, the cast are casually diverse in race, gender and inclinations. They are a family unit as much as a research team, showcasing the many forms of love that can bind a group of people together when they are – in a very meaningful sense – the only people in the universe (not to mention “Thirteen conscious years of living with and working with and leaning on Elena, and to this day, she still intimidates the hell out of me. In a good way” captures my relationship perfectly. YAS GOOD).
There’s an enormous personal cost to crossing the stars for science and mankind, as our narrator Ariadne gently explains. Loved ones are left behind; they will be long-dead before anyone comes home (if anyone comes home). News takes years to catch up with their craft (if the team are even awake when the broadcasts are received). Watching it forces the team to confront new questions: rendered helpless by time and distance, is there any point to knowing what’s happening back home?
In many ways, To Be Taught If Fortunate is the perfect set-up for a horror movie: remote worlds, a team beyond hope of help, the glory – and threat – of new life forms, the risk of reality diverging from expectation. While it embraces the possibilities inherent in its context (when it goes wrong – and it does go wrong – the tension is almost unbearable), this isn’t horror or even space disaster (although if The Queer Martian exists out there please do point me at it).
Instead, it’s a love song to science and space exploration, an invitation to keep reaching for the stars and to find ways to make it happen for the greater good. It’s the rollercoaster drama of a tightknit squad of queer scientists caught in moments of jubilation and crisis. It could be a prequel of sorts to the Wayfarers books (there’s no explicit connection), but it works entirely on its own merits. Compelling and deeply satisfying, it finishes as it begins, leaving you with the context you need to answer that question.