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If you’re the last – To Be Taught If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers

An elegantly worded, thoughtful and compelling novel about travellers in outer space who face a worse choice than life-or-death.


This slim volume of connected stories was published in hardcover in Jan. 2020 and was on my to-read list. It was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Science Fiction in 2019 since the Kindle edition came out in August 2019, but it took me a few months to get to read it. I was in no rush to review it, since it is not the sort of novel that makes you want to immediately express your reactions in a review filled with strong feelings and exclamation marks. Rather, ideas from the book quietly linger in your mind for long afterwards, leading you to increase your appreciation of it over time.

Sections of the novella are expository (but smoothly blended into the plot) since the characters are on a scientific mission, and Chambers uses their dialogues to create contrasts and disparities between their knowledge and understanding as humans from Earth in the far distant future, and the difficult and mystifying conditions that they encounter on new planets. They have to make sense of what constitutes “life”, and thus, vicariously, so does the reader.

As a result, the novel is a blend of Hard Science Fiction and (highly) Speculative Science Fiction, and as Chambers explains in the Acknowledgements, “…I am not a scientist. I have no experience in that field of work, nor any formal education within it. Science Fiction is my transformative fandom, and as in all heartfelt fic[tion], I revere the canon but play fast and loose with the details of my choosing. Still, for this book, I wanted to be as close to the mark as the story would allow, and to that end, I received some help that deserves proper thanks.” (The help included experts in astrobiology, genetic engineering, integrative biology and citizen-funded spaceflight programs.)

The novella is concise but very well written, and to my mind it confirms that Chambers is an original and talented wordsmith. It is innovative and imaginative. As in her other novels, particularly A Closed and Common Orbit, she has created interesting and appealing new worlds, some terrifying, some heartrendingly beautiful, which the reader can easily visualize. And in those worlds she places characters who face worse than life-or-death situations – existencethreatening situations, in outer space.

Please Read This

The book opens with the story called Please Read This, then Aecor (and Earth), Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum. The stories are linked and could be seen as chapters, but the jumps in timeline and location make it possible to also read them as stand-alone stories.

In the first story, “Ariadne O’Neill”, the flight engineer aboard the spacecraft “Merian” which was on a mission to explore exoplanets some time after the year 2162, sends a message to whoever will read the files once they reach Earth 14 years hence: “If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this.” There is tragedy in that opening line. It implies that they have sent lots of other messages, but received no reply or acknowledgement, that they think there is still “home” far away, and that this last message is the final and most important one. That is one of the features of Chambers’ writing style: she packs a lot of meaning into compact sentences.

The space crew has been gone from Earth for 50 years, and Ariadne writes; “I don’t know whose eyes and ears this message has reached. I know how much a world can change within the bookends of a lifetime.” Note the choice of words: “A” world – not “the” world, so outer space now has other worlds and other planets to inhabit. “The bookends of a lifetime” – isn’t that a lovely metaphor?

In the stories that follow, the confluence of events and decisions that led to Ariadne’s message is explained. Basically, they have found out that they are alone. Period. And what do humans do in this situation, if they are cosmonauts? Do they complete their mission, or is it every person for themselves? The most important question is: What, and where, is home? That’s what you’ll have to find out for yourself.

A message from Earth to aliens

The title of the book puzzled me for a long time, because of what I felt was a missing comma in the title. Should it not be “To Be Taught, If Fortunate”? It is only explained on the very last page of the book, p. 135. The words are from a real recording intended for communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, which was made in 1977 by former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim as part of the sounds included on the “Voyager Golden Record“.

The Golden Record is a copper disc that looks like a golden LP record, and it contains encrypted information that form a time capsule of all life on Earth. Copies were put on board the Voyager I and Voyager II space probes, intended to be found and read by whichever life forms may encounter them. On the recording Waldheim says: “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.”

The extract from Waldheim’s letter to aliens explains why there is no comma in the title of the book: the complete phrase is actually two modifying clauses, linked to the verb “seek” by a semi-colon and colon. The words in the book title, removed from their context, no longer make up a clause and do not require a comma. (This is the kind of finicky reader I am. I am likely to get sidetracked into parsing text with Stanford’s CoreNLP. Chambers’ text stands up very well to this kind of scrutiny.)

There are many assumptions and preconceptions in Waldheim’s words, and one can imagine that much could go wrong with the attempt at extraterrestrial communication, but he does speak about peace, friendship, and humility. In this narrative, the non-violent but inquisitive intentions stated on the Voyager Golden Record reflect the spirit, if not the outcome, of the hopeful (and very expensive) interplanetary journeys of the humans in their quest to find exoplanets. But as Samuel Johnson wrote in 1775, “Sir, hell is paved with good intentions.” And there are plenty of both good intentions and hellish places and creatures in this book.

It is a well-written, thought-provoking little gem. It speaks to the reader in a refined and quiet tone. I highly recommend it.

Note: Of the eleven instruments carried on Voyager 1, four are still operational and continues to send back data in 2021. It is expected that there will be insufficient energy to power any of the instruments beyond 2025. Voyager 2 is now in its extended mission to study Interstellar Space and has been operating for 43 years, 5 months and 9 days as of 30 January 2021. It remains in contact through the NASA Deep Space Network. On September 12, 2013, NASA announced that Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space, although it still remains within the Sun’s gravitational sphere of influence. It seems like the “Merian” is like Voyager I and II – it has been sent so far into outer space that it is never coming back, and one day, no more communications from it will be received, and it will be well and truly gone.

To Be Taught If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers (Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton; Jan. 28, 2020; hardcover; 176 pages)


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