The most wholesomely self-indulgent thing you can do this summer is stretch out with A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers’ new novella about a travelling monk philosophizing with a thoughtful robot. Go ahead and nestle into a functional utopia for a little while—pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy it.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built
July 13, 2021
As the story opens, our main character Sibling Dex is deciding to cease gardening for their monastery, and instead follow a new calling as a travelling Tea Monk. We learn more about Dex’s world as the story goes on, pertinently that centuries earlier, the Factory Age ended when robots gained sentience, announced they’d like to leave and then did so, walking off into the wilderness. Humans handled this remarkably respectfully, devoting a lot of energy to preserving the beauty and health of the moon where they live, Panga, while avoiding developing or using technology that they might be somehow enslaving.
Becky Chambers’s work is categorized as solarpunk, but I also think of it as hopepunk. In her Wayfarers series and other books so far, she posits that humans can make the choice to do the right thing, individually and in groups. In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, she presents the society of Panga as unified around a religion, and around a robust sense of ecological responsibility and ethical treatment of others.
Dex’s new role as a Tea Monk is a good indication of how their society values compassion and empathy. Dex is to travel around Panga with their cart and gear, listening to people’s problems and custom blending them tea to relax with. Partly travelling apothecary and partly travelling therapist, Dex’s job is to care for and care about basically everyone.
And then, just as Dex is doubting themself in this role, Splendid Speckled Mosscap arrives. Mosscap is a robot, and I loved it instantly on arrival. As Mosscap and Dex journey together, they discuss humanity’s role in the natural order of things, the nature of sentience, individuality, purpose, the presence of the divine, and how to help each other. The heart of this charming novella is their conversations.
On the one hand, A Psalm for the Wild-Built feels like many classical philosophical texts, with a thin veneer of fictional setting to provide context for a dialogue. On the other hand, the setting is richly drawn, beautiful and fanciful, and the participants in the dialogue are a religious figure in a speculative religion, and a giant robot named after a mushroom.
It feels like a luxury, like escapism, to read this gentle, slow-paced story set in a utopian society, and to think about such deep topics, but I think I’d argue it’s good for us. We can use the change of pace. Tantalizingly, a second Monk and Robot book is already in the works and we can expect A Prayer for the Crown-Shy later this year.
Sibling Dex’s job as a Tea Monk is to offer the people of Panga comfort and relief, and that’s exactly what A Psalm for the Wild-Built offers its readers. Go ahead, treat yourself.