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Literature / To Be Taught, If Fortunate

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"I'm an observer, not a conqueror. I have no interest in changing other worlds to suit me. I choose the lighter touch: changing myself to suit them."
It's been fifty years since we left Earth. If you read nothing else we've sent home, please at least read this.
—Ariadne O'Neill

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a novella by Becky Chambers released in 2019. It is her first entry outside of the Wayfarers series.

In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the galaxy transform themselves.

At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in sub-zero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighboring exoplanets long suspected to harbor life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fourteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate contains examples of:

  • Affectionate Nickname: Ariadne gets called 'Ari' by the other crew members.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Ariadne's transmission ends with her telling whoever finds it that they plan to go into torpor. If the ship receives a 'Yes', then they will travel to a planet thirteen light-years from where they are, that might contain intelligent life. However the distance means it will be a one way trip. If the ship receives a 'No', they will come back to Earth and try and relight the spark of science there. And if they don't receive anything, they will stay in torpor until old age or equipment failure takes them.
  • Apocalypse How: The crew eventually receive a message from a returning mission that has discovered what happened. A solar EMP has knocked out all of the Earth's electronics, including satellites that OCA would have used to communicate with them.
  • Bio-Augmentation:
    • The enzyme patches that sit on the wearer's arm, which need to be continually worn as cells are continually made. They allow the crew to produce anti-freeze in their blood, absorb radiation as energy and on different planets, turn their skin glittery so they can see each other in low light and double their muscle mass to cope with double the gravity.
    • More mundanely, they fix Ariadne's hereditary color-blindness, suppress Elena's inherited predisposition to breast cancer and provide the testosterone for Jack's second puberty.
  • But What About the Astronauts?: One day, communications from Earth just cease. Years go by, without the crew having any idea what happened.
  • Divided States of America: After the Great Shift, Canadian and American territories have rearranged into at least Cascadia (which based on this wiki article, seems to be the Pacific North West) and the Pacific Republic. They share a border, which is mentioned to be desert.
  • For Science!: Open Cluster Aeronautics, the international space agency which funded the mission, is described to be an apolitical non-profit funded solely by individual donations.
  • Global Warming: The climate crisis is continuing to have a big effect on Earth's geopolitics, even though humans are implied to have switched to renewables almost a century before the story takes place (which is Truth in Television — even if humans disappeared today, the seas would still rise). In their first news blast, the crew learn that Elena's hometown of Tampico was destroyed by flooding, along with hundreds of other cities along the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Literary Allusion Title: As made clear on the final page, the work's title comes from Waldheim’s Voyager Golden Record message:
    Former UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim: 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 this immense universe that surrounds us, and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The mission they are on is named Lawki 6, Lawki being a common acronym for Life As We Know It.
    • The worlds' names themselves: the ice moon Aecor ('surface of the sea'), Mirabilis ('miraculous') which is full of weird and wonderful life, the water world Opera, where the creatures produce a constant cacophony of sound, and finally Votum (a vow or promise made to a deity), where the crew, acknowledging that everything they do is on the shoulders of others, place their fate in the hands of humanity.
    • On the last planet, Votum, the team name the only significant source of water, a small creek, Lei's River after fellow astronaut Lei Jian. He informs the crew about Earth's fate and as nothing is heard from him or his mission again, it's clear that his damaged ship did not survive re-entry.
  • Multinational Team: Downplayed but we have:
    • Elena Quesada-Cruz from Tampico (in modern day Mexico.)
    • Chikondi Daka from Lusaka (in modern day Zambia.)
    • Ariadne O'Neill from nearby Vancouver, Cascadia.
    • Jack Vo from Melbourne (in modern day Australia.)
  • Named After Somebody Famous:
    • Their ship is called the Merian, probably a reference to German naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian.
    • The sun of the solar system they are exploring is called Zhenyi, presumably named for Chinese astronomer Wang Zhenyi.
  • Panspermia: Here, all cells have a chiral preference (left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars.) However because both types of amino acids and sugars occur evenly when whipped up in the lab, there are two possibilities: 1. Chiral preferences are a necessity for life or 2. Life originated from a meteorite slamming into Earth, which happened to have mostly left-handed amino acids. On their last planet, they discover single cellular life that has no chiral preference. Which means life uses whatever is on hand, and so life on Earth very probably originated from off-world ingredients.
  • Polyamory: Ariadne has sexual relationships with both Elena and Jack, but is equally emotionally close to Chikondi, who is Asexual. They all love each other deeply.
  • Sleeper Starship: The crew enter a deep sleep known as torpor when the ship is traveling. Their first journey to the solar system fourteen light-years away takes twenty eight years, but the crew only ages about two years.