To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers (review)

To Be Taught, If Fortunate, the first novella from award-winning Sci-Fi author Becky Chambers, follows Ariadne, an explorer at the turn of the twenty-second century as humans venture into the cosmos studying life and all its forms. The diverse cast work together between bouts of decade-long stasis to catalog life forms on brand new planets.

Chambers is one of the goddesses of sci-fi, inspiring many authors around the globe, such as  myself. She weaves worlds with ease, like the magical fingertips of an all-knowing being. She creates these worlds that invite the wallflowers to a party for the first time in their life. Sci-fi itself can be so heteronormative, despite it being one of the most cutting edge genres, but Chambers has staked her place as THE diversity writer in sci-fi, and for all those readers that found a home in her writing or a family, we won’t forget.

In To Be Taught, If Fortunate Chambers creates a world free of prejudice and allows us to glimpse into the exploration of one of life’s biggest questions, all the while showing us that love, companionship, and diversity are the things that make the human race so unique, even when faced with an array of strange and slimy creatures. The Guardian described this novella as “a quietly profound tour de force”, and they couldn’t have been more accurate.

For the exploration of the universe, our scientists respect other planets, don’t try to change them, and try to leave no evidence of their visit behind. Cleverly, Chambers has imagined a world where to visit these dangerous planets, we must first change our own bodies. The characters undergo physiological transformation with each planet they visit, so every time they wake, they must re-adapt to their own bodies.

The description of the creatures, big or small or slimy, are so vivid in the novella, that they come back to haunt me in sleepless nights. The sense of isolation is communicated magnificently. I read this mainly in my car on lunch breaks, so it was a deep dive into the abyss every day that held me. We become one of the crew members sent out into the universe of the search for life. We’re not reading a book, we’re reading the notes from the expeditions we join the characters on, and most of all, we share their highs, their lows, and their sheer panic.

The book closes with General Kurt Waldheim’s words from 1977: “As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of the 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.”

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a one-off contained in its own universes, for now. Becky Chambers’ second novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, has recently been released, in what we can expect to be a multi-book series on artificial life.

Both US and UK covers are fantastic, and I have both. You can order your copy of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers from her website here:

To be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers
To be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers, US EDITION
To be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers
To be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers, UK EDITION