Review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is my favorite science fiction novel of the 2010s. It’s the story of the crew of a starship that builds wormholes, which is basically spacefaring highway construction. Long Way is also empathetic, hopeful, and fun, and has great world-building and a variety of non-human species; the quick summary I’ve come to is “queer Firefly”. So I’m always excited for each of Chambers’ new works, the latest being To Be Taught, If Fortunate.

Unlike Chambers’ previous novels, To Be Taught is set separately from the “Wayfarers” series that Long Way began. Instead, it’s a very similar premise to Interstellar: a team of scientists is sent to multiple planets to see if they support life. But it’s not like they’re looking for a place for humans to settle; their interest is purely scientific, and they’re taking all proper precautions not to contaminate the sites they’re investigating. What you get is a story with Chambers’ trademark wonder, excitement, and humanity1, which I very much appreciated (and which again made me sad about how meh Interstellar was). You also get a background sense of how humans themselves have changed their perspectives, particularly around community and personal relationships (also usual for Chambers’ works).

I’ll caution you that while it starts off fairly fun (with a bit of The Martian vibe, minus the mortal danger), it takes a turn partway through. Things have to go wrong, of course they do, and (minor spoiler) their little science mission doesn’t necessarily escape the consequences of the rest of what’s going on on Earth. That tonal shift is strong and dark enough that you should be careful when reading straight through the book.

Hopefully by now you’ve realized I recommend To Be Taught, If Fortunate. It’s not too long and you don’t have to have read anything else for it to be good. It’s more “sci-fi that’s really about people”, and Chambers does it with aplomb.

  1. To Be Taught doesn’t have aliens in it, but have we come up with a word that refers to the essence of existing as a sentient empathetic being that doesn’t use “human”? ↩︎