The Final Frontier

To Be Taught If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers

It took me a long time to come around to reading science fiction. I’ve always been a big fan of fantasy literature, and I’ve followed Star Trek on screen from the original series all the way to Discovery. But futuristic tech could not win me over. Then I came across Becky Chambers’s first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The title alone was enough to catch my eye.

As soon as I started reading it, I understood. For me, character needs to be front and centre, and Chambers gives the stage wholly over to her characters. She gives the reader a believable vision of a futuristic society: curious and open, smart and empathetic, not perfect but always willing to learn. And inclusive — it’s wonderful to find LGBTQ+ characters who wouldn’t even recognise the description LGBTQ+ because they live in a world where people are just people.

The two books that followed, A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few, explore this future society further. Though they share the same universe, each stands alone and the series can be read in any order. Her latest novella, To Be Taught If Fortunate, stands apart—both in time and space—and shows us the very first human explorers of the nearest exoplanets to Earth.

For me, Chambers’s books are a celebration of some of the most human traits of all—curiosity, hope and love. They are summed up beautifully by the words that Kurt Waldheim, then Secretary-General of the UN, recorded for the Golden Records despatched on the Voyager probes:

“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.”

Could there be a more perfect title for a Becky Chambers book?

If you have ever felt hesitant about science fiction, these books will convert you. You will not regret the decision to follow Chambers into her universe, and to boldly go where you might not have gone before.

Book, mountain and chocolate connoisseur with a particular love for fantasy, mystery, adventure and detective novels, but travel literature and books on feminist issues are great, too. Dislikes include: spiders, people who eat food out of crinkly packaging in libraries, and dividing literature into ‘genre’ and ‘literary’, because happiness doesn’t need a label.

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