Hugo Spotlight: Crossing Unimaginable Distances in Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught If Fortunate

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novella Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

Sometimes space feels like a theory.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not deny the Milky Way and our scientific innovations and findings. I know it’s a place, out there and beyond. And although there is a science to getting human beings from the space we take up on here to being in the space out there—to me it has always felt so very far away. A theory, a fiction—more Star Wars than not. This is, perhaps, not the hot take that some people want. But I’m going to be perfectly honest and say there are simply moments when I feel so small and question the idea of reality and why we exist on this rock and in this solar system. TLDR; it all feels like too much. Like space is so distant that it might as well be a dream.

Becky Chambers takes us to that unimaginable space and beyond in her spectacular novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate—and when I devoured every word in one sitting, it felt oh so real.

Ariadne O’Neill is a girl who grew up on a crowded earth and reluctantly became an astronaut on a mission that takes her through time and the blanket of stars. We get the impression that by 2081 (when our protagonist is born) we have ruined the planet, no spoilers there, and space exploration is funded by people who want to return humans to the stars. Ariadne is “the two-hundred-and-fourth person to go back, and part of the sixth extrasolar crew.”

Chambers delivers a story that simultaneously invites readers into her vision of the future, and pleads for an interrogation of our present—and the plight of the crew aboard the spacecraft Merian. The novella begins with a note from Ariadne asking us (and the people on Earth to “please read this.” We understand several things at once: the crew hasn’t been back to Earth in fifty years. They’ve been to four worlds. Something has caused them to not go back. In the brief introductory note to the reader, there is a statement that hooked me. “I know how much a world can change within the bookend of a lifetime. Causes shift and memories blur. I also don’t know how much you personally know of the universe beyond our home planet.” As I sunk into my own mini-existential crisis, I know this was the moment I would read to the very end without stopping.

The crew aboard the Merian consists of four people. Elena, the commander in charge of protocols and making sure everything gets done. Chikondi, who is tenderhearted and his joy at discovering life is just too pure. Jack, who is handsome, Australian, and for the most part helpful. Finally, Ariadne, the flight engineer. While Ariadne is consistently interrogating her purpose in scientific exploration, she feels like an extension of the reader, leading us through her thought presses in a way that feels like a caress and a gut punch at the same time, such as the moment they wake from torpor after years of being dormant. What is that metamorphosis like when you’re changed, but not really? How does your mind remember that it exists?

I’ll confess, as a kid, I dreamed that by now we’d have reached a level of discovery akin to Star Wars. And if not Star Wars, then Star Trek, I guess. Instead, here we are in what Ariadne calls the “lonely” years where we are the only life we’re aware of. Oftentimes I felt myself wishing the Merian was real, that the science that has allowed the crew to venture deep into space was real. Chambers guides the reader through how humans have changed to help their bodies acclimate to space travel instead of terraforming the planets to be habitable to them.

This idea of ethical exploration is unexpected and constantly interrogated as they stand on the icy moon of Aecor, and marvel at the terrestrial planet of Mirabilis. They even briefly make their skin “glitter” to help themselves see each other in the dark without having to use light and cause damage to the ecosystem. Their idea is to “catalogue” but “not colonize.” It is a noble idea, but Ariadne keeps bringing the reader back to wondering if such a thing is even possible. The tension builds when they arrive on Opera and face their first real challenges with the flora and fauna of the planet. They stop observing and cause damage, no matter how inadvertently. They face the very real possibility and fear that comes with being on an alien planet. They are so very far from home that nothing, not even their bonds with each other might pull them from the edge. And they discover that there may not be a home, an Earth to return to.

Where do you go when you’ve been gone for so long that a return no longer feels possible? As flight engineer, Ariadne devises a plan. In myth, her namesake helped lead Theseus out of the labyrinth with a ball of string, or sometimes tiny gems. As the flight engineer, our Ariadne must lead her crew to safety, only that string, that life line that determines the fate of the spacecraft is us.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate deserves the stars and more.

Zoraida Córdova is the award-winning author of the Brooklyn Brujas series, The Vicious Deep trilogy, and Star Wars: A Crash of Fate. Her short fiction has appeared in the New York Times bestselling anthology Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, and Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft. Zoraida was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. When she isn’t working on her next novel, she’s planning a new adventure.

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