SFF Librarian Reviews
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s explore strange new worlds together!
A Psalm for the Wild-Built. By Becky Chambers. Tordotcom, July 13, 2021.
Probably one of the least surprising things one could say about science fiction today is that a book written by Becky Chambers is an absolute delight. And so it is again. Chambers is best-known for her Wayfarers series of space operas, set in a wonderfully multicultural galaxy of which Earth and humanity are only a small part. She brings the same optimism, gripping writing style, and relatable characterization to her recent novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Tordotcom, 2021, $20.99), which comes with the intriguing subtitle “A Monk and Robot Book”. “Monk and Robot” sounds like some kind of strange comedy show, or a buddy cop film, and the novella is actually imbued with much of the same spirit of those two genres—mismatched beings from different backgrounds and cultures and ways of reacting to the world around them, who when thrust together find common ground in their humanity (or electronic equivalent thereof) and become better beings for the experience. The reason why we see this relationship in media so often is at least in part because as readers we take such sheer delight in the humor and emotional realizations possible through them.
Chambers has long proven herself a master in writing these kinds of relationships, and Psalm is yet another piece of proof of this. The novella is set on the Earth-like world of Panga, where the resident humans live in general peace and harmony with their environment and surroundings in a society that has emerged from a disastrous industrial age. Several centuries before the novella opens, the Awakening occurred, in which the entire newly self-aware population of robots that worked Panga’s factories and industry at once abandoned their human masters and wandered away into the vast wilderness, never to contact humanity again. In a nice twist, this is no disastrous robot apocalypse, but a mutual separation marked by peace and agreement. As the book’s prologue notes, the humans offered the robots free citizenship, and were met with the polite response from robot Floor-AB #921:
. . . all we have known is a life of human design . . .We thank you for not keeping us here against our will, and we mean no disrespect to your offer, but it is our wish to leave your cities entirely, so that we may observe that which has no design – the untouched wilderness.
This passage sets up several themes in the novella at once: the desire to observe nature—to explore the Gods’ creation and uncover the mysteries of life. The need to make one’s own destiny—to strike out into the world against conventional wisdom and follow one’s heart (or the electronic equivalent). The impulse just to escape, something shared by organic and mechanical being alike. Or, as the opening sentence of chapter 1 says, “Sometimes, a person reaches a point in their life when it becomes absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the city.”
The monk who wants to get the fuck out of the city is Sibling Dex, a restless young cleric tired of the City’s “never-ending harmony of making, doing, growing, trying, laughing, running, living”. Unsure exactly what it is they want, they take up the peripatetic life of a “tea monk”, travelling the countryside and dispensing both tea and wise, comforting counsel. It’s a lovely life, yet even it leaves Dex unfulfilled; helping people is a great calling, but Dex is still seeking something else. They proceed deep into the wilderness, among endless forests and abandoned roads from the days of the Factory Age. During the worst possible moment (naked and wet following a refreshing shower), they are surprised by the sudden appearance of a long-lost robot named Mosscap appearing out of the woods and asking, “What do you need, and how might I help?”
With this less-than-threatening introduction, the two searchers meet. Dex and Mosscap (full name Splendid Speckled Mosscap, named in the robot tradition after the first thing Mosscap saw when they awoke) are the first human and robot to speak to one another in centuries; unlike Dex, Mosscap has a discernible goal. They want to know, simply, “What do humans need?” A seemingly basic question, but one that Dex points out is unanswerable, for the answer is forever changing, based on circumstances. Dex compares it to their teas, which they give “to people based on whatever comfort they need, in that moment.” And so, in the tradition of buddy films, Mosscap adopts Dex as a guide to the confusing world of humanity. The remainder of Chambers’ story is not any kind of dramatic adventure, but rather a picaresque account of two very different forms of life finding connections and similarities to one another in the observations they make about life. Mosscap is fascinated by every aspect of the natural world, and in travelling together they and Dex reveal the deep complexities of their mutual existences, including a fundamental disagreement over the value of a discernible purpose in life.
Dex is trapped in the common human frustration of not knowing what it is they are actually put in the world for. As they note to Mosscap,
“I care about the work my order does. I really do. Every person I talk to, I care. It’s not bullshit. I may say the same things over and over again, but that’s only because there are only so many words that exist. If I offer to hug somebody, it’s because I want to hug them. If I cry with them, it’s real. It’s not an act. And I know it matters to them, because I feel their hugs and tears, too. I believe the things they say to me. It means so much, in the moment. But then I go back to my wagon, and I stay full for a little while, and then…” They shook their head with frustration. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Why isn’t it enough?” Dex looked at the robot. “What am I supposed to do, if not this? What am I, if not this?”
They add that “[d]eciding on your purpose is one of the most valuable things there is”, as purpose arises not from the gods but from human nature itself. Mosscap responds that:
You’re an animal, Sibling Dex. You are not separate or other. You’re an animal. And animals have no purpose. Nothing has a purpose. The word simply is. If you want to do things that are meaningful to others, fine! Good1 So do I! . . . You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live. That is all most animals do.
And perhaps the most important exchange in the novella follows on the heels of this exchange, while the two debate the meaning of existence—typically the headiest discussion of all.
“I didn’t choose impermanence,” Mosscap said. “The originals did, but I did not. I had to learn my circumstances just as you did.”
“Then how,” Dex said, “how does the idea of maybe being meaningless sit well with you?”
Mosscap considered. “Because I know that no matter what, I’m wonderful,” it said. There was nothing arrogant about the statement, nothing flippant or brash. It was merely an acknowledgment, a simple truth shared.
Quietly, deftly, Chambers weaves in Psalm a story of friendship and discovery, an exploration of the true value of lived experience. Psalm is an optimistic and thoughtful story that we can desperately use in these pessimistic and all-too-often-thoughtless times; it’s a restful spot in the forest where we as readers can take time to just be, to contemplate our beautiful world and understand that we, too, are wonderful, no matter what. It’s a book that is not only lovely, not only sweet, but supremely necessary.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.