to be taught

Thank you to Harper Voyager for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Series: Stand alone
Publisher: 
Harper Voyager
Release date: 
September 3rd, 2019
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Slice of Life, SFF Novella (HM), Ocean Setting, Published 2019, Four Word Title

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Execution: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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I would never again be the Ariadne who had not been to Opera, just as I would never again be the Ariadne who had never left Earth, just as I would never again be the Ariadne who had never left her parents’ home, who had never bled, who had yet to learn to walk. A moth was a caterpillar, once, but it no longer is a caterpillar. It cannot break itself back down, cannot metamorphose in reverse. To try to eat leaves again would mean starvation. Crawling back into the husk would provide no shelter.

I have been a long-time fan of Becky Chambers. I’ve simply adored her books since the very first page of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and quite frankly I’d read literally anything she puts out – so you can imagine my excitement when I noticed I’d been approved for an ARC of her newest novella! To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a stand-alone which is unrelated to the Wayfarers universe. There’s a lot to love in this small book, albeit a few things that didn’t work as well for me. It’s very different from her previous books, and it isn’t quite the same chicken soup for the soul that we’ve all come to expect from her. That said, I still highly recommend this novella and intend to purchase a copy to grace my own shelves at home.

To Be Taught is a bittersweet story following four scientists on an exploratory space mission aboard a ship called the Merian. Their goal is to visit several Earth-like planets, where they will record the existence (or lack of existence) of life. They’ve traveled in a state of torpor, allowing their bodies to be preserved while they travel for years upon years while only aging for a small fraction of that time. Of course, this does add up, and the equivalent of aging for two years while asleep for decades takes its toll.

Once you remember who and what and where you are, your first impulse upon leaving torpor is to look. But just as waking up after a visible surgery can be jarring, so, too, can be those first moments taking in your altered body. You’re different. You need a moment to prepare, and likely several moments to process, and you definitely don’t need to be working through all of that in a group setting. And so, every astronaut’s cabin has a full-length mirror, which is yours and yours alone. The mirror is not facing the torpor chamber. It’s on the wall to the right of it, out of your line of sight but visible the minute you decide to float forward. The mirror knows you’re anxious to see yourself – but take your time, it says. I’m here when you’re ready, and not a second before. It is the kindest object placement I’ve ever seen.

Although the crew hasn’t aged much, this is not true for their friends and family back home on Earth. The team carries this pain with them. When they left Earth, they said good bye forever to their loved ones even though this mission was not meant to be a one way trip. On their return to Earth… they will be alone. 

I will not detail here what I did or said on family day, or repeat the words that still echo in my ears. That belongs to me alone. I’m not going to perform that part of myself for anyone. I won’t say, either, how it went for my crewmates (though we’ve unpacked that baggage among ourselves many, many times). I’ll explain family day for you in the most astronautical way I know how: a simple briefing. . . 

You hold everyone, as tightly as you can. You tell them you love them. You tell them you know. You tell them goodbye. You cry. A lot. You keep crying after you’re back at campus. You cry until you run to the sink and vomit. You cry through that as well.

The novella focuses primarily on four planets visited: a planet of ice, a planet of lush vegetation, a planet of oceans, and a dry, dry planet of rocks and mountains. However, these planets serve as a backdrop to the interactions between the characters. They mirror the interpersonal conflicts between our four astronauts, as well as how they deal with some very disturbing events back on Earth. The organization they work with back on Earth sends them updates at regular intervals such that they can keep “current” on world events – in a manner of speaking. Each information packet from Earth takes over 14 years to reach them. We feel their excitement, their devastation, and sense of wonder as they discover new life even as they deal with the fact that the messages from Earth… have ceased to arrive. 

Jack won the dice roll on Mirabilis. It’s fortuitous that we lacked the live video coverage of the Apollo and Eridania missions, because the immortal words that flowed forth from mission specialist Jack Vo’s mouth as he became the first human to set foot on this new planet were: ‘What the fuck is that?’

. . . 

A solitary smooth-skinned thing that has no Earthly equivalent, which everything else was avoiding or shouting at. It shivered through the shadows, watching the hog-bodies intensely but never making a move. It did not open its mouth, as we stood there, but I was afraid of whatever it held within.

The first 30% or so of the novel is the sole reason this book wasn’t 5 stars for me. The latter 70%? Absolutely 5 stars all around. The first portion, however, is essentially just a lengthy infodump. It’s a very nicely written infodump. It’s interesting to read, even. t’s just that it’s too much all at once – particularly for a short novella. Much of the information presented in that section could have either been removed from the narrative or introduced more naturally as the novella went along.

Despite that slight pacing issue, the final pages of the novel were heavy hitters that made up for any other issues the novella might have had. They made it all completely, utterly worthwhile and may well be some of the best Chambers has written. My heart broke for the team of the Merian, even as it was flooded with optimism and hope for humanity. Becky Chambers is a master of delivering sadness and devastation right alongside a true and genuine love for humanity, and that is something that illuminates everything she’s written. 

“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.”

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