A Tunnel in the Sky

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To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 3, 2022

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The title is taken from a quote by former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, part of the message sent on the first Voyager probe in 1977: "…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…" It is a remarkable blend of old-style Hard SF, tempered with the compassion of new sensibilities. Plenty of science, but more character driven than that of the Golden Age.

I had previously read a comment somewhere that this might be connected to Chambers' Wayfarers series, but I saw no confirmation of that. It is possible, but if so it would be a prequel set several hundred years prior to the first novel. It's written in first-person by a crewmember of the Merian, the sixth of the Lawki series of extra-solar missions. Ariadne O'Neill says she was born in 2081, and at that time it had been more than fifty-five years since the last human had been in space, which would make that about 2026. However, by the time she completed her training at Open Cluster Astronautics, she became the two-hundred-and-fourth person to go back to space. The reasons for the gap in space exploration were at least two-fold: funding was needed to address more immediate concerns on Earth due to climate disasters, wars, famines, etc; more research was needed to develop protections for astronauts against radiation and the debilitating effects of prolonged weightlessness.

The Lawki 6 mission was to study one moon and three planets orbiting the red dwarf star Zhenyi. Each of those would pose different conditions and problems for the mission specialists. It had been fifty years since they had left Earth, but only twenty-eight years in subjective time for them, as their vessel reached close to half the speed of light. They spent most of the voyage in 'torpor' state, not quite full suspended animation, but similar. They had also undergone 'somaforming' to alter their body chemistry to prepare for the varied conditions, using enzyme patches. For the moon Aecor the patch protected them from increased radiation, another reconformed their bones and musculature to counteract the heavier gravity of Mirabilis. The two other planets were the mostly water world Opera, and the one closest to Zhenyi, the tidally-locked Votum. They found lifeforms on all four, but none they would consider 'intelligent.'

This is just a novella, but could have been expanded into a novel if more of their research had been covered. But it's a personal log sent back to Earth by Ariadne, not the frequent science reports they also sent over the years. They were on each of the celestial bodies about four years, Ariadne condensing their discoveries for her log, but still a lot of infomation about the lifeforms they encountered, how almost all were radically different than anything seen before. They also received periodic messages from Earth. OCA transmissions were mostly the same, continue mission as originally mandated, while the news was more than a decade out of date, and of little interest to the crew. I said they were on each planet four years, but for the last it was probably longer. No telling how much longer, while they waited for a reply to their question; return to Earth, or take a shorter voyage further out to Tivael? Earlier probes had confirmed it had three habitable planets.

Ariadne had occasional conflicts with her crewmates, electronics systems analyst Elena, geologist Jack, biologist Chikondi, but that is to be expected on such a long mission. They more often worked well together, or alone, absorbed in the fascinating discoveries. There was occasional anger and resentment, but also mutual aid and support, even love. If this is connected to Wayfarers it might turn out that they did go to Tivael, and either they or their descendants were the ones who first made contact with other civilizations in the Galactic Commons. Earth could not have asked for better representatives, ones willing to teach if needed, willing to be taught if they were fortunate to meet another civilization's best representatives. This is the new SF, filled with scientific rigor, but also human compassion. The genre is in good hands with Becky Chambers, and I feel fortunate to be taught by them.


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Becky Chambers

September 3, 2019

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