Although I’ve only read two of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels plus her fantastic novella To Be Taught if Fortunate, I was as excited as the rest of the SFF community for the first volume in her new novella series about a tea monk and a robot. Chambers’ trademark hopeful writing, delightful and diverse characters, and original world building are something I’m always in the mood for.
A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT
by Becky Chambers
Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 160 pages
Series: Monk & Robot #1
My rating: 8/10
Opening line: If you ask six different monks the question of which godly domain robot consciousness belongs to, you’ll get seven different answers.
In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers’s delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.
It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.
One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.
But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.
They’re going to need to ask it a lot.
Becky Chambers’s new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?
Dex is a monk whose life is missing something. They don’t quite know what it is or why, because technically they have everything they could want. Family, friends, a lovely home in the city… but one day, they get a longing for the sound of crickets that just won’t let up. So Sibling Dex decides to just pack up their stuff and become a travelling tea monk. Along the way, they eventually stumble across a robot which upsets not only Dex’s life but could also mean change for humanity as such. Because when robots gained consciousness, humanity ended up releasing all robots into the wild and they haven’t been seen since. Except, of course, for this robot named Mosscap, who is now in Dex’s path…
I’m pretty sure you already expect that this book is delightful, and you are absolutely right. Just like with Becky Chambers’ other books, this isn’t just a simple straight-forward story, but a tale with many layers. I’ll try to squee about them one at a time, lest this review turn into incoherent fangirling.
I immediately loved the tone of the writing which is a little bit different than expected. First of all, although the story takes place on a moon on which humanity has finally managed to live mostly in harmony with nature and each other, things aren’t all perfect. Or at least, humans aren’t. Our protagonist Dex who goes by they/them and doesn’t belong t oany gender has this strange feeling of dissatisfaction which kicks the whole story off. The way Chambers describes this emotion of feeling like you should be perfectly happy with your life but for some reason just aren’t, that was so damn relatable it hurt!
Very similarly, Dex’s journey to learning a new skill and taking on a new job, felt so utterly real it made me laugh. Dex thinks they know what a tea monk does and just… tries it. Their very first customer isn’t quite as pleased as she should be after visiting a tea monk and Dex quickly understands that there is way more to their new job than they expected.
You see, a tea monk serves tea to people who just need a break. I adore this concept and wish we had something like this in our world! Dex travels with their wagon (which is self-sustainable and super cool, btw) from city to city to village to city again, sets up their cushions and tables and chairs, and just listens to people. Whether it’s stressed out people, depressed people, or perfectly happy people who just enjoy the company, Dex is there for them and always has just the right kind of tea to make them all feel better.
It’s only after Dex has become really good at this whole tea monking thing that this strange feeling creeps up again, this sense that this is not enough. And that’s when they meet Mosscap, an actual honest-to-gods robot who’s on a mission of its own. Mosscap volunteered for the job of checking in on humanity and finding out what we need. Which, obviously, isn’t a question one tea monk can answer just light that. And so it’s decided that Mosscap will accompany Dex on their journey for a while, to learn about humans and our ways, and maybe to teach Dex a thing or two in return.
Oh, how I adore Mosscap! Mosscap not only teaches us interesting things about what robots have been doing all this time since they left humanity to their own devices, but it also brings this childlike joy at everything the world has to offer. Reading this book had a similar effect on me as watching a baby or toddler explore the world and being totally awestruck at something we adults take for granted. There is this sense of wonder at (to us) unremarkable things that make the world feel just slightly more magical.
Most of the second half of the novella is conversations between Dex and Mosscap, some more philosphical than others, dealing with all sorts of subjects and nicely showing that opposite opinions can still find common ground. There’s glimpses of super cool world building, and not just in the way cities are built or how humans live without destroying the nature that surrounds them, but also in terms of religion and tradition and the different types of monks there are. There is the friendship that’s slowly growing between Dex and Mosscap, although you can’t expect the bond to grow very strong in just one book (which I like – it’s like an insta-friendship antidote). But Dex does open up to Mosscap and Mosscap shows just how human a robot can be. This is clearly the beginning of a wonderful friendship and I for one can’t wait to go on the next adventure with these two.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!