Adrienne Martini Reviews The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday 978-0-38-55412-13, $28.95, 512pp, hc) Novem­ber 2019.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is more or less the pro­tagonist in The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s follow-up to her bestselling The Night Circus. The “more or less” caveat is there because Morgenstern takes great glee in subverting expectations for what a story needs to contain in this, um, story. There are characters, each of whom is fully felt and one of whom doesn’t get as much real estate as she should. There is a plot, one that involves Rawlins searching through a wonder­ful and terrifying underground world for Dorian, a relative stranger with whom Zachary is likely in love. There are obstacles.

While that hunt gives the novel its propulsion, what The Starless Sea is actually about the philo­sophical underpinnings of stories themselves. The whys and the hows and the becauses. It’s about stripping a story down to its essence. As one char­acter puts it: “Something was, and then something changed. Change is what a story is, after all.”

Like any story, The Starless Sea has a beginning and an ending. It also has a middle – a lot of middle. Morgenstern crams about a billion ideas – including but not limited to game design, folk tales, cocktails, and bees – into the endless-feeling middle. Some of them open up her tale in interesting ways; some don’t live up to their promises. She takes a big, admirable swing but doesn’t completely connect. Still, it’s a book full of beautiful moments, even if they don’t all work in concert.

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.

Thanks to the wonder of somaforming, Ariadne O’Neill and her three shipmates are on a mission to explore four far-flung planets in the 22nd century. In Becky Chambers’s novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, the mission goes well until, of course, it doesn’t. As in Chambers’ Hugo Award-winning Wayfarers series, the problem doesn’t come from the place you’d expect.

Hang on to that thought.

Somaforming works while the astronauts are in transit. When their bodies are in cold sleep, they are transformed to contain the attributes they’ll need on an alien world. At the first stop, the crew wakes up glittery, which means they’ll handle radiation more efficiently. During the trip to planet two, their bodies are rebuilt for higher gravity, and so on. Each new stop begins with the crew discovering what parts of their bodies are now unfamiliar. Chambers calls our attention to how those changes play on a person’s perspective. That isn’t to say that whole new worlds of flora and fauna aren’t discovered and that there isn’t plenty of neato science fiction-y stuff, just that exploring out there isn’t necessarily the main point of Chambers’s novella.

The problems our crew experiences don’t come from planets and/or space being full of things that are indifferent to their death. The vast team of scientists who launched the project (to say nothing of those on earth who helped fund it) made sure that the engineering and construction was sound. Instead, the conflicts the crew faces are existential ones – the most important being: what do you do when your reason for doing things disappears?

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a tight, frequently funny, character-driven novella that tells a cozy space exploration story, except what’s being ex­plored is human brains rather than bug-eyed aliens and exotic worlds.

Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.

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

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