Hugo 2020 Novellas: To Be Taught if Fortunate, Becky Chambers

I’ve found Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers books a bit hit and miss. They have many positive qualities and I absolutely understand the love for them but I’ve struggled to finish more than one of them. So I was interested to see her branch away in this novella that is set in a much nearer future.

Not unlike the film Interstellar, the story follows a group of explorers visiting exo-planets each with potentially harbouring life and each with their own unique circumstances (an icy planet, a high-gravity planet, a water world). What makes these explorers different from the standard trope is that they are purely doing science for science’s sake. They aren’t the advanced guard of terraformers or colonists (or not intentionally so). It’s a nice idea to see in fiction that too often sticks 19th century European-explorer tropes onto science fiction trappings.

As with her Wayfarer stories, the crew are mix of characters who attempt to work together with compassion while dealing with their own unique personalities and issues.

And that’s about it for positive things I can say. Maybe it was because of the audio book but I found the protagonist to be patronising and condescending creating an overall tone of smugness that often ran counter to the plot. The story was full of the kind of poorly worked through unnecessary detail that serves Chambers’s stories badly (like the genetic enhancement to make the crew’s skin glitter when they are working on a dark planet…in full protective suits to stop them contaminating the planet). I really don’t need every detail to be science perfect and free of any niggles to enjoy SF but Chambers often adds these kinds of techno flourishes that then make little sense. It’s the sense of these thing as carefully constructed details that adds to the incongruity of them that simply wouldn’t be an issue if treated more vaguely or out of focus. For example, I have zero issues with the ship’s interstellar drive. How does that work? Who knows! And that’s fine — it’s a necessary thing for the story to exist and not everything needs an explanation but if you give an explanation that is intended to make sense textually then it really should make sense. Arrrgh! There’s nothing wrong with having characters get glittery skin via gene modification in itself but if you want that to happen because it would be cool to have glittery skin THEN HAVE THAT AS THE REASON WHY THEY DID IT – because it was cool and not because it might save them some infinitesimal fraction of the power on lighting on their trips outside of their interstellar spaceship on a DECADES long mission.

That issue isn’t just confined to the techno bits but also to the character motivations. We have a whole scene in which one of the crew members is in anguish at having to kill an alien critter. It is an important emotional moment and as an idea it is a neat reversal of the usual human-alien encounter featured in, for example, the various Alien films. But, but, but the crew really, really must have already worked through emotionally and ethically a lot of the issues that they then struggle with and we KNOW this because the main character earlier had already discussed the biggest obvious problem: they keep dropping a great big fiery rockety spaceship into these eco-systems killing goodness how many critters each time it plonks down. I’m not having a go at the ethical framework the crew have adopted, it made sense and the fact that even to explore and investigate requires a degree of pragmatic acceptance that they WILL have some impact on the local fauna. It’s like she’d set a story in a vegetarian restaurant but for just one scene and one scene only, she needed the characters to be vegans. Later on the crew (under psychological stress but still) end up killing a huge bunch of alien creatures because they were just really f-ing annoying.

I audio-booked this one and if I’d read it with my eyes I’d have given up way before the end. Even so, I had to re-listen to half a chapter because my mind had wandered off to somewhere more interesting part way through and I realised I had lost track of 30 minutes of the story. Even the title of the story has that maybe-you-didn’t-think-this-through aspect to it, being a quote from the recording added to the Voyager probe’s golden disc from (at the time) UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim which is reprised at the end of the story:

“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.” [my emphasis]

Yes, it’s a great quote but hmmm the inspirational quality is maybe not so great in context. I’m not saying nobody should ever quote Kurt Waldheim, just that there is a hell of a lot of baggage there that makes any quote from him becomes weighed down with irony particularly when used inspirationally about our common humanity.

There’s a decent short story or novelette here but the whole thing needs some merciless editing. I ended up actively disliking the whole crew and by the end I had to imagine that the actual twist was that the rest of planet Earth found the crew so insufferable that humanity just pretended that Earth had lost all capacity to communicate with them any more, like somebody pretending to have bad phone reception to get out of a phone call.

The same emotional beats, the same subversion of space exploration tropes, the same view of science-for-science’s-sake could have been done in a much shorter, much tighter, much, much better story. I finished it days ago and thought if I stepped away from it then I’d be less annoyed by it but I wasn’t. Now I’m doubly annoyed because I’ve ended up writing a mean review and now I’m annoyed that I’m annoyed.

19 thoughts on “Hugo 2020 Novellas: To Be Taught if Fortunate, Becky Chambers

  1. I did not get smug from the main character reading the text. I generally liked the story, and enjoyed their over-cautions, first do no harm approach to exploration. I was expecting far more dramatic body modification than we got from the story, though. And I absolutely despised the ending. I get what she was trying to do as a meta narrative in which you the reader, being someone given this story as a report, get to participate in the end. But when I try to put myself in their position, I can’t imagine how anyone would have possibly made the choice they did.

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  2. Well, to be fair, Waldheim most likely did not write that text anyway.

    However, I agree that he’s not someone you want to quote. Though I don’t know how well known his problematic past is outside the German speaking world.

    Maybe we should send another golden record after the first with an apology: “Sorry about the Nazi, but a) we had no idea that he was one at the time, and b) he didn’t write those words anyway. The invitation still stands.”

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    1. The more I thought about it a sci-fi story with the same title but which got the issue with Waldheim and the juxtaposition of his war career and his later diplomatic career as a metaphor for humanity trying to escape or maybe transcend history could be really good…but I’m confident that wasn’t Chambers’s plan here

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      1. It’s quite possible that Becky Chambers was not aware of the controversy surrounding Waldheim. It was a big deal in Austria and the German speaking world in general at time, but I’m not sure how far the scandal penetrated or how well it is remembered.


      2. Maybe. I didn’t recognise the quote until it was explained, so it’s also possible that she was unaware of who said it other than the UN Secretary General at the time.

        I’m surprised that more people haven’t commented on it in wider fandom though.


      3. It got a reasonable amount of coverage at the time. There were certainly mentions in comedy – Craig Ferguson had a little routine about it that I have on a copy of his first LP.

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      4. Per Wikipedia, Becky Chambers was a baby when Waldheim’s Nazi history came to light, so I can’t fault her for not being up on international controversies of the mid 1980s.


      5. As a bit of general knowledge, I agree that I wouldn’t fault somebody for not being familiar e.g. I was aware of the scandal but not the details but I’m fact hoarder.

        If it was just a quote in a book? Hmm, I think a bit of research would be warranted into who you were quoting but I can see how ‘UN Secretary General’ would look like a safe bet.

        As the TITLE of a story? I mean, the war crime accusations are right there on the Wikipedia page. I don’t think people should be making a big deal of it, it’s not the worst faux-pas ever but ‘inspirational quote from Nazi war criminal’ is a technically defensible description of the title (a bad faith one that misses the context but not actually false).

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  3. Not unlike the film Interstellar… If it helps with your annoyance: I found that movie mind-numbingly stupid and irritating, for many of the same reasons. It’s filled with things that Nolan thought were cool, but in context make no sense whatsoever.


    1. I haven’t watched a Nolan film since Interstellar. It’s like he gave all his worst impulses as a film-maker free rein. Maybe it’s all out of his system and his more recent stuff is tolerable again, or maybe it’s just given him license to make absolute nonsense. I may never find out for myself.

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  4. I didn’t hate this book, but I couldn’t rate it very highly, either. I agree that it might have been vastly improved by some tight editing.

    At least it wasn’t the hot mess that Interstellar was — but that’s not the same thing as being Hugo-worthy.

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  5. I loved this novella, *especially* the ending – I literally cried. But then I also love the Wayfarers series, so there’s something about her writing that just hits me the right way.

    I usually don’t notice or worry about technological nitpicks. We live in a world where we have all sorts of useless technical gadgets – special purpose cookie shooters, pancake makers, waffle irons, and whatnot. Sometimes things just exist because someone thought it was a good idea to make them.

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  6. I’m always annoyed by authors who stick things in because they think they’re cool but then don’t consider whether a) those things make sense at all or b) those things make nonsense of the plot.

    Paolo Bacigalupi is bad that way. His “Windup Girl” stories are a dystopia where cities in America (or what used to be America) are dying for lack of water and power. Poor people have to drink their own urine through a special filter that purifies it. Really? It’s so cheap poor people can buy it, and it desalinates urine with no energy input other than gravity. Then why is there a water shortage? And there’s a device that can store enough energy to power a car that works by stretching special molecular bonds. He has people charging them up with manpower or animal power. But a device that could so effectively store power would solve almost all of the world’s power problems at one stroke.

    The “Three Body Problem” was awful for introducing cool ideas that made marginal sense and then forgetting about them. E.g. book #2 had a system that could quickly develop a language translation simply by taking input from a client. But book #3 requires a message to the whole universe be transmitted in every language ever known.

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    1. A commentator during io9’s reading of “Windup Girl” asked that if both calories and power were such a problem, why was food being wasted on elephants to generate power? (I guess to store it in the magical molecular things)

      And what about waterwheels — a proven low-tech power generating method for centuries, easily built from scrap, and maintained by illiterate peasants?

      He went blah blah, reasons, blah blah, and finally had to admit that waterwheels simply had never crossed his mind. He literally hadn’t thought of them.

      That and many commentators being skeeved out by the male gaze-ness plus some mighty whitey tropes (submissive Asian women) meant I didn’t bother reading it.

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      1. Like most male gays I don’t notice male gaze unless it’s gazing at males. 🙂

        I spoke to Bacigalupi when he was in Seattle and again in Dublin, and he agreed that he’d underestimated the impact of those two technologies (the urine purifier and the stored energy device). He said he put them in to show that corporations never solve big problems; they just come up with solutions optimized for individual consumers. His stories more or less show how the country would fall apart in the absence of good government.

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