What a sci-fi novella’s extraterrestrial vision tells us about earth’s troubles.
I started reading Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, If Fortunate with no expectations — the book had been a gift, and I knew almost nothing about it, but I wanted something short and sci-fi-oriented. Within 15 pages, I was riveted. After 30, I felt my hope for the future beginning to return.
Regardless of where you stand on the issues of the day, there’s plenty to worry about. (The issues that keep me up at night include access to reproductive-health care, minority rights, and climate change.) But one of the great things about science fiction is that, just as it can predict horrific doomsday scenarios, it can also forecast a world that has reckoned with the concerns we grapple with today. Interestingly, Chambers’ novella includes a mix of both.
In the 22nd century, Ariadne O’Neill is the flight engineer of a four-person crew tasked with making an ecological survey of a moon named Aecor and three planets, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum. In this future, patches with “genetic supplementations” allow astronauts to restructure their bodies to conform to new environments rather than expecting those environments to adapt to them. As Ariadne explains it:
“Human spaceflight was stalled for decades because of [our lack of adaptability]…It ended up being far easier, once the science matured, to engineer our bodies instead.”
On planets with low levels of light, a glittery sheen adorns the astronauts’ skin to take advantage of reflective properties; on those with higher gravity than earth, the astronauts’ muscles are reinforced to give them the strength they’ll need.
In our reality, we’re still light-years away from such technology that can modify our bodies. And yet, for the first time since 1972, NASA recently announced it is sending astronauts back to the moon. Along with Chambers’ book, this event got me wondering: If we ever reach other planets, how will humans interact with them?
It may be too much to hope that we’ll be as intentional in our space travel as Chambers’ astronauts, partly because the parameters of our missions are (thus far) much more modest. We don’t have to worry about how we’re affecting the moon’s biome because its atmosphere can’t support life anyway.
But what happens when we develop the ability to travel farther and faster? Will our primary mission be to colonize other planets, or simply to explore them? Will we be so concerned with knowledge-collection that we forget we’re visitors to a foreign world? Or will we proceed with caution and respect?
Here, as in Chambers’ novella, the forecast is mixed. Mass shootings are ever more common; the rights of minority groups are in increasing peril; common ground (and common decency) appear to be at an all-time low. And yet, there are rays of light: Climate legislation and talk of reparations are increasing; governments are ceding territory back to Indigenous peoples; and technology continues to allow us to make lifesaving medical breakthroughs.
As much as the intrepid explorer in me wants to see what life is like in other worlds, I hope it’s centuries before humans visit any far-off planets. In the meantime, I hope we can work on treating each other with more respect and kindness, both as a worthy goal in itself and as a means of practicing in case we ever encounter other life in the universe.
When Ariadne and her crew arrive on the fourth planet, Votum, they discover there’s little they must adjust to. “There was nothing about me that appeared different than it had on Opera, not in a visual, touchable way. But I was different, as different as a stranger,” she reflects. “I would never again be the Ariadne who had not been to Opera, just as I would never again be the Ariadne who had never left Earth.”
She concludes, as she examines her visage in the mirror, “I did not know who she was, the one waiting for me to start moving toward her. I was curious about her, all the same. I was eager to meet her.”
May we take this same curiosity and eagerness to any foreign places, interstellar or otherwise, we explore. And may we proceed with kindness and respect.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.