[Read as an audiobook from the public library]
“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.” — Secretary-General of the United Nations Kurt Waldheim, on the Voyager Golden Record, 1977.
This one has kind of grown on me as I’ve sat with it after finishing it. This is not your typical sci-fi adventure story, though the characters do travel to distant worlds. There’s a lot more science in this than many so-called hard science fiction books I’ve read — I would argue there’s quite a bit more science than plot, though that’s not a complaint.
There’s really not a lot that happens in this story at all, in the traditional sense. Definitely after reading all the available Murderbot books, this book felt extremely contemplative and slow. To Be Taught is definitely a human story — what happens to us when we leave our home and venture outward. What we discover, what we hold on to, what we leave behind. It’s less about the places we go than about what those places do and mean to us.
The story: A four-person multinational crew comprised of Elena, Jack, Chikondi, and Ariadne are part of a publicly-funded nonprofit space mission from Earth to explore exoplanets. Earth has mastered a technique called somaforming — altering human cells to adapt to the rigors of space travel and other worlds. Instead of destroying other biomes by making them habitable for humans, humans have found ways to make themselves adaptable to other biomes. The missions are sent to explore other planets for four years — take samples, study climates, conduct experiments — and eventually return to Earth. But the tradeoff for their discoveries is that they will not return to the Earth they knew — to get to these outer worlds they must travel at half-light speed in a state of torpor, or a kind of suspended animation, aging two years in the travel time of 50 of Earth’s years, with a 14-year communication gap each way. They know when they leave that they will never see anyone they love on Earth again, even if they come back. Everyone will be long dead, and everything will have irrevocably changed.
So the crew is their own family, in many ways. They function as a unit — as coworkers, as partners, as siblings, as friends. These relationships are one of Chambers’ strong suits, in my opinion — from reading her Wayfarers series I know she’s adept at creating people who feel strong bonds for one another and are able to express them. Sometimes her people feel a little too perfect — our narrator, Ariadne, never mentions any huge fights or misunderstandings that blow up into catastrophes or pet peeves that spiral into rage. I may be a cynic, but I just feel like something like that would have to happen between four isolated humans under immense pressure, three of whom are sexually involved, over years and years together.
But regardless. The crew experience four planets together: icy Aecor, where they discover life under the endless glaciers; the giant planet Mirabilis, teeming with life of all shapes and sizes; stormy and waterlogged Opera, where they’re trapped for four months; and the desert Votum, where they are able to come to terms with what their mission truly means.
I don’t want to give away spoilers — this is a short read (the audiobook is about 4.5 hours) and if you’re interested I’d recommend giving it a go since it’s not going to take a lot of your time. But Ariadne is basically narrating the story of her journey and discovery for people back on Earth because of some things that have happened, or might have happened, and I found the ending really quite lovely. I’m kind of a major space nerd, have been for years. This is definitely a book about science and space nerds for science and space nerds — for people who do science because it’s beautiful and important; not because it’s patentable or has monetary value.
If you’re looking for adventure, this isn’t going to be your jam. This is mostly internal and interpersonal (mostly internal, honestly).
There’s a pretty upsetting scene on Mirabilis where a lifeform accidentally gets past the decontamination protocol and they have to put it down and it doesn’t quite go as expected and it’s not pleasant. It’s not presented as pleasant for the crew either, but heads up for folks who feel for furry creatures, even those that don’t look anything like what we have here.
There’s also what I would consider a pretty vivid sequence of something I might call a character’s brief suicidal ideation after a prolonged period of stress and sleep deprivation, so if that might bother you, be aware of that.