In recent times I’ve often seen my fellow bloggers write enthusiastic reviews of Becky Chambers’ novels, and curiosity drove me to add her first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, to my TBR, but it was a comment about this novella that compelled me to start with her latest work, both because it afforded a quick peek into this author’s writing style and because of its intriguing concept of somaforming – the adaptation of the human body to alien environments in antithesis to the change of environment, or terraforming as a means to create a suitable living space.

This initial detail is what informs the structure, the soul of the story if you want: a team of four scientists – Ariadne, Chikondi, Elena, and Jack – depart from Earth on the Merian, a long-range ship tasked with the exploration of a promising planetary system. Since the voyage will take several decades, the four explorers will go into suspended animation while in transit and during that time their bodies will undergo the necessary transformations that will allow them to survive in extreme conditions, like higher gravity or radiation exposure.  The story is told in the form of a message/diary sent by Ariadne back to Earth, and from it we learn about the overcrowding and environmental troubles in our home planet, conditions that are driving humanity to search for viable places for colonies: what’s interesting here is that such expeditions are funded by a non-profit organization based on what essentially sounds like crowdfunding, which allows for a purely scientific research free from any kind of corporate exploitation.

The tone of the novella is set by the sense of wonder coming across in the descriptions of the four planets visited by the explorers, the awe created by such diverse and astonishing landscapes: the four scientists are naturally intrigued by their findings and the discoveries they make in their travels, but they are also capable of pure joy at the alien vistas opening before their eyes. 

As an astronaut, you know conceptually that you’re going to another world, that you’re going to see alien life. You know this, and yet there is nothing that can prepare you for it.

There is also a strong sense of family uniting them as well, the unspoken but ever-present awareness that they depend on each other in this little pocket of home away from home, and the definite sense of effortlessness in the ties that have come to bind them: shared love of pure science, of course, but also the realization that their individualities contribute to the healthy whole that is the Merian’s microcosm.

Love of science – a science imbued with that sense of wonder and joy of discovery I spoke before, and therefore free from any pedantic connotation – and love of knowledge for its own sake are the underlying themes of the story and they stand at the root of the final conundrum facing the four explorers: a difficult decision that they don’t feel entitled to take on their own because it requires the support of all those who sent them into deep space to find the answers Earth needs. Just as the crew of the Merian did not travel so long with conquest or profit in mind, so they feel the need to engage their backers – or their descendants – in the next choice to be made: being so far away from home does not free them from the responsibilities and the moral obligations that have driven them so far, and so the poignant core of Ariadne’s message is “Where we go from there is up to you”, the willingness to share discoveries and goals and to invest in the hope for humanity’s future.

If this first sample of Becky Chamber’s writing is indicative of what I can expect from her longer works, I believe I will quite enjoy the full-length novels I already set my eyes on…

My Rating:

29 thoughts on “TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE, by Becky Chambers

  1. That upbeat sense of wonder is present throughout all her work – even when things get quite difficult. I love reading her work and I hope you feel that you’d like to read more of it – while I enjoyed the novella, I love her novels even more:))

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s a lovely book, isn’t it? Yes – I really love that upbeat vibe she manages to get, yet without losing any narrative tension or edges to her characters. It’s a really clever trick to be able to pull off. And as you say – right now, it’s vital:))

        Liked by 1 person

            1. What’s interesting here is that I usually find conflictual relationships more interesting, and I might have scoffed at the easy way the crew of the Wayfarer mingled with each other, but Chambers presents their interactions in such a way that I could not help being delighted by the sense of tightly-knit family they projected 🙂


  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this, Chambers really is a FANTASTIC writer. This being a novella though, it was a tad too short and undeveloped for me, but then I am also spoiled by her full length novels – I hope you’ll enjoy those too when you try! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have read the first book in her Wayfarer series so far, and I have to agree that it was much better than this shorter work – and also quite optimistic in outlook, which these days is exactly what the doctor ordered! 😉


  3. I too have been seeing a lot of love for this author in the past years but have yet to really give her a chance. I like how often you turn towards novellas to sample an author before committing to her larger stories though and this one sounds excellent! The whole exploration of science/knowledge has me intrigued 100%. Thank you for sharing another phenomenal review! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am so glad you liked this one! I haven’t read any of her books yet, but I am planning to start in November and I cannot wait!
    Back to this work, the part about the sense of family in there seems great! It is always precious to find something similar in books!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read this one and not sure I will because short stories just don’t work too well for me but glad to see you enjoying this author, I’ve read three of her books and found them all very engaging in very different ways.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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