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Review: To Be Taught If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate audiobook cover: a rocky landscape with a red sky. To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 4 hrs 47 mins.
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton.

To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers is a thoughtful, intelligent exploration of humanity and the universe.

Audible Summary: "In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.

Adriane is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.

Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.    

©2019 Becky Chambers (P)2019 Hodder & Stoughton Limited."

This was my first audiobook by Becky Chambers but I am sure it will not be the last. There is an unexpected thoughtfulness to this book, amplified by the mostly first-person narrative as we follow astronautical engineer Adriane's journey to another world. It is as contemplative as it is speculative, exploring some big, philosophical issues in an accessible, thought-provoking way. That they happen to be in space is in many ways incidental to many of the things they come to learn and the questions they must ask themselves.

Told in the form of a 'TED talk to humanity', Adriane and the crew of the Merian relay their experiences and discoveries as they travel to four planets; Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum. The journeys between these planets take decades, and life on Earth hurtles on apace whether the Merian's crew are actively reporting their findings or sleeping away the years as they travel toward their next project. We learn of the crew's scientific mission and the personal highs and lows that accompany it, all while being granted adequate space to wonder how accurate Chambers' vision of the future may be. And, of course, how we ourselves might forge a life for ourselves in similar circumstances.

I found the torpor and somaforming aspects - a form of stasis and bioengineering - especially contemplative. Adriane emerging from stasis and describing not having had a proper bath (in something more luxurious than the pod's cleaning solution) for 28 years echoed the experiences of many chronically ill people I have known, whose conditions were - or are - so severe that they have to be stowed away in a dark, quiet, room akin to a sensory deprivation tank. It is not so dissimilar to Adriane's torpor, with both astronaut and patient unable to be moved out of bed for feeding, cleansing, or toileting, and instead having those functions simulated with tubes and wipes and pails as life outside passes them by. The stark inhumanity of it suits the futuristic sci-fi but it is testament to the author's evocative explanation that something so 'alien' resonated so easily.

This feeling was also echoed in the way the crew awoke each time with different features. Illness and medication have often ravaged my body in quite short periods of time, and I have experienced the horror of that moment when, upon first looking into a mirror, one does not recognise the face staring back from it. Chambers details this challenging aspect of stasis sensitively - though her characters cope with the disconnect far better than I did - and it raises fascinating questions about the true meaning of identity. if your face does not always reflect your inner self, does society become less judgemental of body image? Do standards of beauty change when the 'beautiful' no longer stay the same very long?

I particularly enjoyed Chambers' word-building in this novella, which was surprisingly detailed and immersive for an audiobook of such brevity. The notion of space exploration as a decentralised, egalitarian, crowd-funded scientific experiment of unmatched proportions is simultaneously extraordinary and tangible, and that balance between the practical and the fantastical is finely trodden throughout. There is a gentleness to this audiobook which makes it very relaxing to listen to, even as the questions it asks become ever more disquieting.

The narrator, Patricia Rodriguez, read this story very well. Her voice has a pleasant tone and her pace made this audiobook perfect to unwind with at the end of the day. The scientific minutiae did not become dry or monotonous, and the moments of excitement and wonder were imbued with genuine enthusiasm. Rodriguez did just as well to convey the crew's growing disillusionment and despair as their mission took its toll.

While I do not think that I shall listen to this book again, I am glad to have heard it and know that I will think on its themes for a while longer. I would certainly recommend this audiobook to anyone who enjoys sci-fi, but also to those who have previously struggled with the often-overwhelming scale of many intricate space operas and would like to try something a little different.

*I received this audiobook free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.

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