Book Review: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers (Four Stars)


Book Review: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

(Four Stars)

“It’s difficult to assign value to discovery when you haven’t sorted out the parameters of reality yet.”

Exquisitely good hard science fiction solidifying Becky Chambers as among the best in that genre today. Unfortunately marred by advocacy and technical errors. Despite that, it’s a great story. Maybe 4.5 stars.

“To properly survey a place, you need boots on the ground. You need human intuition. You need eyes that can tell when something that looks like a rock might be more than a rock.”

While I agree that definitive science is best done by a human observer, effective and more efficient observation at long range (interplanetary, let alone interstellar) is demonstrably best done by robotic vehicles.

“Misconceptions about how the universe works can be absorbed as truth, thanks to the famous tendency we pop culture purveyors have of getting things wrong.”

Sending an urgent message to Earth from a star tens of light years away presupposes a large, dedicated receiving antenna trained on a single spot in the sky for the short time each day that star trackable. Any message would open with the most urgent information (or question) with background appended. That, of course, doesn’t make for dramatic storytelling.

Quibbles: “Definitive as the end of an atmosphere.” But there is no definitive end to atmosphere it merely thins to nothing. “Where solar panels are useless and everything runs on battery.” NASA demonstrated a third alternative with Voyager and other deep-space probes. (Chambers ignores the huge energy required to lift the vehicle out of each planet’s gravity well.) “Votum, with its textbook tidal lock …. Votum’s close proximity to Zhenyi also means heavy bombardment by solar particles. The robust magnetic field that surrounds Votum helps.” A tidal-locked planet will have no magnetosphere, which is generated by the rotating mass of liquid metal at the planet’s core. “Showering is an utterly impossible activity in a weightless environment.” Again, NASA has demonstrated otherwise; defining shower must be flexible. “A rocky giant nearly double the size of our home-world. On its surface, my body’s weight would double.” We hope she meant twice the mass of earth because the gravity of a planet twice the diameter (which is the common idea of size) would be much higher. “As far from its star as Uranus is from our own, which makes for a sun no bigger than a fingerprint in the sky.” Your smallest fingerprint is huge compared to the angular size of the sun at that range.

Needs an outside science consultant, however qualified and helpful her mother may be.

“My generation was so preoccupied with fixing the mess left by the unaddressed-and-fully-known-about environmental disaster of the previous generation that we committed the same sin of criminal procrastination against yours.”

Reinforced by how the Covid-19 pandemic pushed everything except politics off the world agenda.

Advocacy: “Citizen-funded spaceflight. Exploration for exploration’s sake. Apolitical, international, non-profit.” We wish. “This strongly suggests that life on Earth only arose thanks to ingredients that originated off-planet. This further suggests …” Philosophical, rather than scientific, declarations even in the context of the story. As is, “Would you be more comfortable with the limited predictability of machines? Or is the flexibility of human intelligence worth the risk of our minds and bodies breaking?” A false dichotomy and emotional appeal. The entire Apollo program was a flag-planting publicity stunt, as would sending humans to Mars any time soon. Ninety-nine percent of a manned mission’s mass, energy, cost, and practically every other measure is supporting human life. So much more science has been and is being done by robots.

“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.” Then UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, 1977, as recorded on the Voyager Golden Record”

4 thoughts on “Book Review: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers (Four Stars)

    • The quibbles are mild compared to many science fiction authors.
      The book blurb already tells too much. Didn’t want to repeat that.
      It is a good story. Wanted to give it five stars, but couldn’t.

      • Ah – I shall go look at the book blurb. Thanks.

        I value YOUR analysis, so it confused me a bit when you were happy with the book, but could point to so many flaws that would bring me to a standstill. As a long-ago trained physicist, the things that don’t bother other people sometimes overwhelm my ability to suspend disbelief.

  1. Exactly. Anything that throws the reader out of the “spell” of the story–that which destroys her willing suspension of belief–is to be avoided.
    Chambers does better than many, but some of the quibbles identified brought me to a complete halt.

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