Tuesday, September 3, 2019

To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers

Harper Voyager, ISBN 9780062936011, September 2019

This is a standalone novella unconnected to Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series.

Climate change accelerated to a severe crisis that drained the ability and willingness of governments to support space exploration. Yet the drive to explore is not dead, and a private institute forms, to crowd-fund continued research and exploration. With contributions coming from anyone, anywhere in the world, who wants to support it, and all contributions, tiny or enormous, acknowledged, it works.

This story follows Lawki 6, a mission to a red dwarf system with four planets that may be habitable. Five missions to other star systems were launched before them, but results from the first weren't yet received when Lawki 6, ship name Merian, departs.

The crew is engineer Ariadne O'Neill, nominally in charge, and mission specialists Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo, and Chikondi Daka. With the information about the worlds gathered before their departure, they have patches that, while they are in deep sleep between worlds, make small but significant changes in their bodies to improve their ability to do their jobs. It might be skin glitter to make them more visible to each other in low light conditions, or improved bone density and musculature for high gravity, or any other small, useful changes that don't require remaking basic body form.

And on each world they make fascinating discoveries--sometimes, not always, including life.

The system is 14 lightyears away, so news and mission updates from Earth are fourteen years old, essentially history, when received. Likewise, their mission reports are fourteen years old by the time they reach Earth. Because they don't have FTL, they are separated from those they left behind by a good deal more than fourteen years. But this is not designed as a one-way mission. They expected to return to Earth eventually. It's the distance and time delay from Earth, the years of changes in what feels to them like a brief nap, in torpor traveling between their target worlds, that ultimately produces their major crisis.

Their instruments are picking up data from another star system, one that has a planet that not only has life, but may have a technological civilization. On the one hand, they have no reason not to go check it out. Distances and consumables reserves are such that they can go there, and still be able to return to Earth. There seems to be no immediate need to return, given the information they have.

But why are they out here? What's the purpose of their exploration, and who is it for? They weren't funded, equipped, trained to indulge their own curiosity; they're doing it for Earth. What does Earth want? Is it right or wrong to continue?

Chambers always gives us absorbing, compelling characters, whose dilemmas are real and challenging. In this novella, she gives us interesting worlds and life forms, and characters we really care about and understand by the time they face their big decision.

Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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