Queering SFF

Where Good Work Would Grow: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

“If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this,” begins Ariadne O’Neill, the narrator and protagonist of To Be Taught, if Fortunate. At the final planet of her ecological survey, Ariadne is writing home to share her human experience of space travel—and, ultimately, to make a request of her potential listener. As she continues, her message is not necessarily urgent in the most literal sense; communication takes fourteen years to travel one direction between Earth and the habitable system her team is studying, another fourteen to return. But it is, nonetheless, a matter in urgent need of response despite the gap of decades.

Ariadne, Chikondi, Elena, and Jack are a small team of scientists (and engineers) dedicated to space exploration as funded via a global nonprofit, a grand human network devoted to science for the sake of itself outside the pressures of capital and nation. The team survives through a complex patchwork of technologies: travel slower than light balanced out with a torpor-state that allows humans to exist without advanced aging in a coma-like rest, somaforming to adapt the body to radiation and necessities of life on different habitable biomes, and so forth. At the heart of it all, though, is human ingenuity and drive to learn—to be struck by the incomprehensible open canvas of the universe and to try, even briefly, to know it.

To Be Taught, if Fortunate steals the breath right from your chest consistently, constantly, without fail. I spent the majority of the novella—which I read in a single sitting—with a swell of tender, driving emotion pushing at my guts (and I did shed a few tears). Chambers’s brief tale is intimate but vast, wondrous and simple, crafted with technical precision toward a purposeful argument about human progress, science, and the small personal futures that create grand-scale futurity. For such a slight text, it’s rich with narrative and argument both.

The quiet, steady competence of Ariadne, crew engineer, scaffolds the entire mission and the tone of the novella itself. As she says, “In order to do science you need tools, shelter, and a means to get where you’re going. I was responsible for all of these. I was building a trellis where good work would grow. There was nothing I wanted more than that, nothing that brought me more pride.” That shift in thematic focus from a victorious individual discovering a breakthrough all alone toward the sturdy support-frame that allows a team to coexist and create knowledge together is the central concept of the novella. The glorification of the trellis—the backbone of the vines of research—is evocative in its significance and simplicity.

Because, on a larger scale, what Chambers is doing with this novella is queering science, reassessing the mythologies of scientific progress in a social world to include the always-present but oft-ignored realities of the networks that allow knowledge to accumulate. In short, To Be Taught, if Fortunate integrates the social and physical sciences (as they are in practice) and demonstrate the human linkages, the inseparable importance of culture and story, to the act of assessing the massive universe around us. Science is not unbiased; science does not exist outside of the human self creating and structuring it—it is not objective and never has been, and social constructs are a part of that.

So, it’s especially moving to read a novella that is sweeping in its grandeur, its sense of wonder, exploring planets and moons and worlds we’ve never imagined previously—forms of life beautiful and terrible, landscapes from ice covered moons to tidally locked zones with constant day and night—that places itself firmly in the stead of an engineer whose support role is valorized. That, right there, is a feminist intervention on the narratives of scientific progress and science fiction: looking with wonder at the roles that are often hidden.

And, moreover, the delightful diversity of the crew—unremarked upon and thus blissfully unremarkable—is another step toward queering these accepted narratives of what sf and science look like. The crew is multiracial and multigenerational; the four of them share close physical and emotional relationships that transcend romantic partnership in favor of a communal intimacy. Jack is a trans man; his hormones are part of his somaforming, again unremarkable. Chikondi is asexual and the text is careful to note that his relationship to the protagonist is no less emotional or vital than those she shares with people she is sexually involved with. Elena is older than the rest of the crew and has certain foibles of personality that are more commonly assigned to men in texts but when embodied by a woman are often judged—she’s aloof, does not process emotional moments in the same fashion as the rest of the crew.

This list might seem clinical of me, but again: within the text these elements of race and gender and relation are unremarkable, well-negotiated, and settled in place amongst the queer chosen family that forms the crew of the ship. Chambers’s representation of the sort of communal existence that would be required of a small crew who have left behind, forever, the world they’ve known and the people they’ve loved is as real to me as can be. Binaries of gender and love and physicality are unnecessary and restrictive; part of the success of this crew, this future, relies on its queering of heteropatriarchal mythologies. And it does this without explanation, without notation, as a simple fact of existence (the way queer folks experience themselves in the world).

These thematic underpinnings of the novel are something the reader can chew over as part of a conversation on science and genre fiction, and they’re grand, but the real kicker is—I wasn’t thinking much on that during the act of reading, because the novella is so fucking engaging that it’s hard to do anything but be swept along. Chambers paints astounding vistas of unseen life while she delivers, in striking but conversational tone, observations about the nature of exploration and discovery that awake a powerful yearning in the reader to know the world. After all, Ariadne’s purpose in writing this missive and sending it along is to reinvigorate the human willingness to go to space, to spend the time and human capital to see these awe-inspiring things. As she says in the opening notes: “I’m writing to you in the hope that we will not be the last,” by which she means the last astronauts.

 

Spoilers.

The plot that creeps in during the beautiful and terrible ecological mission is one of time and society as well. The global project of nonprofit space exploration occurred after a climate collapse and national restructuring, and during travel, Ariadne abruptly realizes that they’ve received no news packets or updates from Earth in months—then years. The creeping horror that perhaps there is no home to return to is assuaged, in part, by a doomed message from the final remaining survey crew, revealing that a solar flare devastated the technological resources of Earth and those have, presumably, not been built up to capacity again enough to contact the surviving teams. The conclusion of the novella asks a question: shall we return home, to help rebuild, or continue on a one-way mission to the next location? Science is not for all if done for the whims of individuals, so the crew has written home to ask blessing and permission from the current people of the world—without it, they will not act.

It’s an emotional reminder of our responsibilities to one another as a social group, not as lone individuals on solitary islands. None of us exist without each other, or survive without each other. The open conclusion to the novella embodies the ethical and social significance of being the builder of the trellis rather than the conqueror of a space, rewriting certain myths of colonialist science as a form of sacrifice rather than greed. The final piece of the text is a quoted paragraph from Waldheim’s Voyager Golden Record message, also the source of the novella’s title—a reminder that we are “but a small part of this immense universe.”

To Be Taught, if Fortunate is a powerful piece of work that fits immense scope into a tightly utilized space, a bravura performance of craft skill that demonstrates, among other things, how well-suited the novella form is to the narrative projects of science fiction. One person is part of a larger web, on a grand and almost unimaginable scale, as Chambers so deftly illustrates with her exploration of the wondrous drive humans possess to see and know the world around us. Ariadne and her crew, the worlds they explore and the paths left to them at the end, will linger with me for a long time.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is available from Harper Voyager.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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