At the turn of the 22nd Century, there was a scientific breakthrough that made long-distance space travel a realistic possibility for the first time.
The main obstacle to human spaceflight had always been that it was almost impossible to design a ship that could protect its human occupants from the hostile environment of space, for the length of time it would take to get to planets that were many light years from our own.
In the end, the breakthrough came by coming at the problem from a completely different angle. It was discovered that human bodies themselves could not only be adapted to counteract these effects, but they could also be endowed with different abilities to allow astronauts to be ideally suited to the environments they may find on other planets. This process was called somaforming.
Humans were, at last able to explore the heavens and search for the evidence of life on other planets, rather than just speculating from afar!
Ariadne and her three fellow astronauts are on a research mission to explore four exoplanets fifteen light-years from Earth. It has taken them 28 years to reach their first destination, and while they have slept, the somaforming process has done its work, keeping them safe and also developing special attributes for their mission. Between each new planet, the astronauts will be transformed while they sleep, so they will wake up in the form best adapted to the conditions they will find on the surface of their new destination.
As the mission progresses, Ariadne records their experiences and details of the different life-forms they encounter. All their recorded data is sent off to Earth, even though it will take many years to reach there. This is a mission that will take many years and by the time they have completed it, the Earth will be a very different place to the one they have left behind.
Indeed, the World they have left is changing more than they thought possible. Does anyone at home still remember they are out here? Is anyone still listening?
This is the first time I have been introduced to the work of Becky Chambers and I am very impressed.
There is a lot going on in this novella, despite the fact that it is only 160 pages long (4hrs 47 mins in audio book format, narrated very convincingly by Patricia Rodriguez), and it leaves you with many things to ponder when you have finished - plus a listening experience that has you with your heart in your mouth most of the time! You will find yourself alongside the astronauts and experiencing everything they see and feel - right from the moment they wake-up at each new planet.
Right from the start, you are aware that these characters are "ordinary people", despite having the most extraordinary job. Their mission has taken them a long way from home, both in time and distance, and there are many things they miss from Earth - not least the families they will not see again.
The overwhelming thing that struck me about this story is the dedication of the astronauts to their mission of discovery. They are fully aware that they are only in Space by the grace of all the people who have contributed to the space programme - since this is now funded by public donation, rather than government backing. This inspires them to do a good job for the benefit of all humanity. They are very aware that they are here to discover, without harming the environments they find themselves in and do their best to follow this protocol at all times - although there are certainly some hiccups along the way.
It is clear from this book that the idea that being in space for a prolonged period is likely to affect the mental state of the astronauts, as well as their physical condition. Although lots of thought seems to have been put into protecting them from and adapting them to the rigours of space travel, their psychological well-being has not been considered as thoroughly. Yes, they have the comfort of routine and protocol to follow, but look what happens when things do not go to plan? It is admirable however, that whatever their adventures throw at them, the astronauts are able to fall back on the very idea that humanity knows best about the reason they are actually on this mission in the first place and they are ultimately able to rely on each other to pull through. Don't get me wrong, they are not on this mission simply out of sense of duty, as they want to be here on the cutting edge of space discovery and are enthusiastic about their work - but they never lose sight of why they are there.
I love space travel stories and am fascinated by them. The idea that other lifeforms may exist somewhere out there is a compelling one, but I have no wish to leave the safety of our little blue planet myself - the thought of being isolated from everything I know and love, and possibly being unable to get back home, terrifies me. Therefore, I found the very nature of this story incredibly chilling, but it is intensely thrilling at the same time.
Also, being a fan of an obscure book title, I was intrigued by the fact that this one is called To Be Taught, If Fortunate. What does this actually mean? Well, dear readers, it is part of a quote which was recorded by Kurt Waldheim, Secretary General of the United Nations 1972-1981, the full text of which was on the Golden Records placed aboard the Voyager probes from 1972. The full text is below, and it serves to explain the meaning behind this novella. It is very thought provoking.
As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of the 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth. I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. 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. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.