17 August 2019

Review - To be Taught, If Fortunate: A Novella

Review - To be Taught, If Fortunate: A Novella
Becky Chambers (read by Patricia Rodriguez)
Hodder & Stoughton, 8 August 2019
Audiobook, 4 hours 47 mins (also available as hardback, e-book)

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of the To be Taught, If Fortunate audiobook via titleShare, (a new service which pitches itself as a kind of audio NetGalley. I've only, so far, experienced this book via the service but the listening experience was good and the service intuitive).

To Be Taught... is short (literally, a novella) and suited to the audio format where I find too much length can be off-putting. The recording is also excellent, Patricia Rodriguez providing a nuanced, well paced and expressive reading which suits this story very well.

As a story, the book came over as a punchy, clean version of a classic SF format: the voyage of discovery (in the spirit of "To Boldy Go...") Astronaut Ariadne O'Neill and her handful of crewmates aboard the Lucky 6 have been launched on a lightyears and decades long voyage to investigate nearby, potentially life-bearing planets (remember space is HUGE, people!) Because of the distances and times involved, much of the journey is spent in 'torpor' - suspended animation during which temporary genetic manipulations ('somaforming') are applied to fit the crew for the environment of the target planet - be that high gravity, lack of light or high radiation. We slowly understand that the recording we are hearing is Ariadne's message back earth some way into the voyage, making the format particularly apposite. Ariadne's message explains the background and nature of the voyage - in the 22nd century, with space exploration long moribund, it has been revived by mass crowdfunding which effectively sponsors a space agency. We hear about Ariadne's early life, her emotional parting from her family - torpor and time dilation will mean that on return they will be dead or very old - and her hopes and fears for the expedition.

The story then proceeds through visits to a number of every different planets. Chambers' handling of this material is a joy. We get, I think, some of the sheer unvarnished delight in the wonder of the universe, in the possibilities of scientific exploration and understanding as the crew observe different forms of life and collect all the data they can. This isn't a book of space empires or conflict, it's an older and even dare I say it, purer form of science fiction than that.

Which isn't to say that all goes well. The planets visited are not equally welcoming, with incidents that challenge the astronauts' ideals of 'do no harm' and even place them in some jeopardy (as well as testing how long a group of people can survive in a large tin can). Through all this, Chambers' tone is calm, reflective and philosophical, not just narrating events but - though Ariadne - reflecting on them as well and relating them with a real passion for science and sense of idealism. If you didn't know what you were listening to - if you missed the opening, say - you could easily believe this was the memoir of a real scientist. The story takes the time to explain things - tidal locking, chirality - which not all readers/ listeners may understand but above all to show why those ideas are important.

And, having educated us to the world, the universe, of Ariadne and her crew, and shown why what they are doing matters, Chambers calmly leads the crew - and us - to a moment of choice. A moment when driving through rural Oxfordshire, I found myself shouting 'Yes!' in answer to a certain question. It's a mark of this book's construction and impact that this wasn't, primarily, a matter of what I wanted in the story but an emotional reaction to the case Ariadne was making, to the values portrayed here and the context of her - and her crewmates' - dilemma. (Sorry to be obscure about that but I don't want to be too spoiler.

To sum up, an excellent story with lots of wonder. A SF classic in the making, I think.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.

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