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To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky ChambersUK edition2.5 stars
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[This review contains mild spoilers in the closing paragraph.]

In the stand-alone novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers takes a break from her Wayfarers universe, delivering an exploration-themed space opera. It doesn’t break much new ground for her as a storyteller. But it’s so earnest and heartfelt that even readers who aren’t Chambers’ most ardent fans should respond well to it. Chambers shows improvement in areas where, to put it politely, I have not been as enamored of her work as pretty much everyone else in fandom. For instance, her approach to character — which has always struck me as cloying — has developed to the point where everyone in this story more or less rings true as a person, though not everyone shows equal levels of depth.

What I will happily praise about this story is that it offers — in spades — that unabashed sense of wonder about the universe that is the hallmark of the very best science fiction. Chambers’ crew of explorers aren’t the dispassionate, faceless scientists of the Campbell era, thank god. They’re professionals who are meticulous about procedure and can yet gush in childlike glee at the sight of an alien fish swimming underneath ice. The thrill of discovery, of being the first human eyes to see other worlds, pervades this book so completely that the comparative lack of it in so much current SF really stands out in contrast. It’s why we love SF in the first place.

On the downside, Chambers is still weak on conflict. And, worst of all, she leaves us with an ending that, while I understand the intent of its message, is about as misguided as any ending I’ve read in a science fiction story since Jack McDevitt’s Omega. It’s an ending that will, shall we say, generate a lot of argument. Yes, I have read some passionate and eloquent defenses of the ending from other reviewers, whose opinions I appreciate but cannot bring myself to share.

Lawki 6 is part of a crowdfunded deep space research expedition taking place at the turn of the 22nd century, the goal of which is to study and catalogue life forms on four Earth-like worlds. To minimize the environmental impact these expeditions will have on the worlds they visit, the crew undergoes a process called somaforming. While in cold sleep during the voyage between planets, their bodies undergo genetic transformation so that they’re physiologically compatible with each alien environment by the time they arrive. Chambers has a real talent for punctuating the scientific passages in her stories with little grace notes of humanism, such as the way she describes mirrors being placed a certain distance away from the crews’ cold sleep compartments, so that they can take the necessary time to work themselves up emotionally to see the radical changes in their appearance.

Our narrator is Ariadne O’Neill (Chambers quite possibly paying homage to Gerard K. O’Neill here), the mission pilot, who walks us through her crew’s voyages to four planets and their wildly disparate flora and fauna. The small crew allows for a much more intimate human backdrop, but surprisingly, one with little interpersonal tension. One quirk of characterization that Chambers could still stand to get over is that she loves her people a little too much, so that she’s really reluctant to have them face anything like actual peril. This woman never would have written Jurassic Park. What is conveyed, with considerable passion, is the wonder of new discovery, punctuated by occasional sorrow, but mostly a kind of unfettered joy rooted in the notion of committed teamwork toward shared goals.

The plot is given gravitas by the abrupt loss of contact with Earth, in the form of news updates that, several years into the mission, all at once stop coming. Naturally, this worries everyone, but it doesn’t provide the potential of serious dramatic tension until near the end, when the crew has to make a decision: whether to return home and face the possibility of an extinct human race due to some unthinkable cataclysm, or voyage onward of their own volition. Or maybe do something else.

Chambers has Ariadne deliver one of the most heartfelt soliloquies on the importance and necessity of science and discovery the genre has seen in decades, if not in its entire history. And then, she has the Lawki 6 crew make a decision that will polarize readers right down the middle. I’m on the side against; so much so, that I fear this will go down as one of those endings that nearly killed my enjoyment of what was otherwise a tale I was rooting for.

For one, I don’t believe it’s a decision that every member of the crew would have agreed with, especially as a possible consequence of the decision will be literal suicide. (And avoiding having the crew even so much as argue about it is a prime example of the way Chambers is conflict-averse in her plot development, even to the point of hurting her story.) For another, while it’s one thing to argue that the fruits of science belong to humanity and should be enjoyed freely by all, it does not follow from this that the decision to undertake science in the first place ought to be subject to some kind of plebiscite, especially from a public who may no longer even exist. For scientists as deeply invested as this crew is invested, the impetus would be to go on, to expand that final frontier of discovery until they drop in their tracks. The universe does indeed have much to teach us, if we are fortunate. But it’s also true that fortune favors those who never give up the quest.