Liz Bourke Reviews To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton 978-1-473697164, £12.99, 140pp, hc) August 2019. (Harper Voyager 978-0-062-93601-1, $12.99, 176pp, tp) September 2019.

I wish I had enjoyed Becky Chambers’s To Be Taught, If Fortunate nearly as much. Where Chambers’s previous works (The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few) took place in her space opera Wayfarers continuity, a universe inhabited by multiple sentient species where FTL travel is relatively commonplace, To Be Taught, If Fortunate takes place in a different continuity entirely. It’s about a four-person team on a space exploration mission that’s going to take them 50 years away from Earth, with a 14-year-each-way time lag for communications, from a crowd-funded organisation dedicated to low-impact exploration, even as resources on Earth get tighter and tighter.

There are a lot of things that Chambers does well in this novella: her depiction of the small, family-close team (of different genders and sexualities) and their relationships; the changes they undergo as individuals and as a team as they spend more and more time on their mission; the joy in discovery and the hard work of science in the field; and the various different technologies they use to make their mission possible. Ultimately, though, I find the question the characters are posed (and the one they pose) at the novella’s conclusion to be less rich in meaning than I believe Chambers intended for it to be. Mostly, my reaction to the characters’ choice at the end of the novella is to find it an abrogation of their responsibil­ity to themselves and to other humans, to be puzzled and vaguely irritated – and I don’t think that’s the novella’s intent.

Still, Chambers on an off day writes a lovely, gentle, uncompromisingly character-centred piece of work that’s better than some writers do at their best, so To Be Taught, If Fortunate is entirely worth a read.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the September 2019 issue of Locus.

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