To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Read December 2020
Recommended for fans of Chambers
 ★     ★     1/2

A travelogue with frankly underdeveloped characters and a bonkers ending–and I don’t mean in the Gideon the Ninth kind of way. No, I mean in the Tana French, authorial choice kind of way. A metaphor, in novella, for exploration, learning and weighing costs.

The set-up is that a team of four astronaut-scientists are on a long-term exploration mission from the Earth, with an agreed mission to explore four different targets and report back, engaging in a type of extended torpor between locations. The technology has advanced enough that there’s some temporary genetic modifications they can do to adapt to the planet they are on; otherwise, it feels a little like standard advanced explore sci-fi, with habitats, labs, sampling, decontamination protocols and long-range communication. Early on, I had strong flashes of Children of Time, and We Are Legion, and it is interesting that it unfolded so similarly. However, Chambers has a rough time with plot, and it went nowhere quite fast, despite all the obvious directions I’d expected it to take, it largely didn’t.

I’ll be honest–I’m glad I got this on kindle sale, because it reads a little bit like a college writing assignment, and I mean that in the best possible way. Full of solid, imaginative writing about landing on other worlds and what it would take for an expedition team to make it work. Clever ideas about four different kind of planets and what each one of them would be like, although I’ll note that they are all supposed to be Earth-analogue, so the exploration is mostly that of discovery.

Narrative consists mostly of telling, so your mileage will vary. The narrator is genuinely nice, and is aware she is writing for a non-science audience, so is accessible and hopefully interesting. There’s a lot of science asides, which, depending on your level of science, may or may not be interesting. There’s one on chimerism that came from Chemistry 101, but has an interesting application to evolutionary theory that one new to me.

More significantly, the characters are cut-outs, not people, that don’t develop much beyond the types: Solitary Botanist, the Jock Geologist, and the Driven Zoologist. It’s narrated by the Gentle Engineer, a woman who tries to keep everyone/thing going and happy. There’s literally no interpersonal conflict between them [despite different sexual combinations]. When they have issues, they turn inward. Like, clearly written by someone that hasn’t lived through America in 2020, is what I’m saying. Or the author is appealing to some Greek ideal of a higher nature, but it’s one that you let go of the second time someone betrays you in real life. Probably everything else should be put under spoilers.

There’s one external conflict, when a scared being accidentally violates the decontamination protocol. I expected it to have lasting effects, and I think it was supposed to be resonating with the Botanist, but it never explicitly comes up again. The major plot device is when our devoted scientists (of which the Engineer notes she isn’t really one, but she’s everyone’s helper) forget to notice that messages from Earth have stopped arriving regularly, and when they get one, the decide not to open it for four years.

Yeah, not buying it. Chambers has given me exactly zero to hang my belief on for this one, and so I can’t.

I ended up having two reactions to this story: one, “pretty!” You know, the same kind of reaction you get wandering past a cool aquarium. Two, derivative. I’m sorry, but everything she started to play with here was done better by Tchaikovsky. Existential dread? Better in Walking to Aldebaran. Stranded explorers? Better in Children of Ruin. End result: good but odd attempt at messaging, but too overt and too Schrödinger of an ending to be successful. Value rests on the one-trick pony ending. Definitely not buying any more Chambers until I read first.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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4 Responses to To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

  1. Andreas says:

    Great review, you just nailed it 👍
    I hope Chambers gets back her groove in the next Wayfarer novel.

  2. Pingback: Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard | book reviews forevermore

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