First Chapter, First Paragraph
To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers
“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.”
What is To Be Taught, If Fortunate About?
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 subzero 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 journey to neighboring exoplanets long known to harbor life.
A team of these explorers, Ariadne O’Neill and her three crewmates, are hard at work in a planetary system fifteen light-years from Sol, on a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds. But as Ariadne shifts through both form and time, the culture back on Earth has also been transformed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the story of the wonders and dangers of her mission, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.
First Chapter, First Paragraph
I never knew an Earth that was unaware of life elsewhere. The Cetus probe scooped up bacteria-laden samples from Europa’s geysers twenty-nine years before my birth; the first rover photographs of fossil arthropods on Mars arrived while my parents were still in trade school. I don’t know what it was like in those lonely years before when our view of Earth’s place in the universe was one of a solitary haven, an oasis in a galactic desert. In some ways, I wish I did. I wish I could’ve been there the day the first positive results were radioed back from Cetus. I wish I could tell you what it was like to be in one of the old mission controls or research labs or newsrooms, learning in real time with the rest of the planet that our small world-view had been magnificently blown apart. But by the start of my life, just three decades later, extraterrestrial life was common knowledge, something every kid took for granted. Humans are nothing if not adaptable.
Another wish: that I could tell you I always wanted to be an astronaut. That’d be a much better story, wouldn’t it? Some of my colleagues could (and can) claim that. An entire life set in motion by the sight of Saturn’s rings through a sidewalk telescope, or a furious sense of purpose imbued the instant they saw those first fuzzy images of a cloud-flecked blue-green exoplanet. I can claim none of those inspirations as my own. I was four when the Tarter space telescope photos came back, and I do actually remember being shown them. My mother lifted me onto her lap in front of her tablet. Her voice was hushed with wonder, and she held me tight.