‘In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, bestselling Becky Chambers’s delightful new Monk and 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.
A gentle science fiction philosophical amble through the foothills of the world of Panga searching for the comfort of the perfect cup of tea in the company of a sentient robot, this novel never feels saccharine whilst looking at the world and its people with hope and faith and warmth.
What I Liked
- The general sense of hopefulness that pervades the novel and the world of Panga
- The focus on comfort and the simplicity of the things that bring comfort and peace to others: a cup of tea, a moment to feel listened to…
What Could Have Been Different
Becky Chambers came across my reading radar with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and her Wayfarers series is a wonderful warm science fictiony hug! Yes there were traditional space opera tropes we love – multiple species, interplanetary politicking, warfare – but the focus was on the characters and their relationships on board the ship…
Picking up Psalm was not what I expected. It was… different. It eschewed those space opera tropes entirely, set in a single location on the world of Panga. Spaceships are replaced with a tea cart. Interstellar travellers are replaced by monks…
Panga is an interesting world – a world that seemed to have faced the same challenges we are currently facing in terms of climate change, but which has come out the other side with a renewed sense of respect for nature and others. So much so that when robots develop sentience, humanity respected their newly discovered identity and allowed them to leave for the wild.
Some centuries later, our protagonist Dex, a nonbinary tea monk learns and plies his trade where his does not simple craft tea for his customers but gives them a space and time to relax, to chat, to be heard and listened to, to unburden themselves. Half the novella, perhaps revolves around Dex’s mastering their trade until they decide to take a detour into the mountains in order to hear crickets. As you do. Dex’s feeling of discontent, of ennui, of not being quite satisfied yet not exactly unhappy is wonderfully depicted in the single sentence
… at some undefined point, Dex started waking each morning feeling like they hadn’t slept….
Haven’t we all, Dex, haven’t we all? And it is this that prompts the spontaneous decision to explore the wilds which again is beautifully put
“Ahhhhh,” they said to the forest. The forest replied with rustling needles, creaking limbs, and nothing at all.
Nobody in the world knows where I am right now, they thought, and the notion of that filled them with bubbling excitement. They had canceled their life, bailed out on a whim. The person they knew themself to be should’ve been rattled by that, but someone else was at the helm now, someone rebellious and reckless, someone who had picked a direction and gone for it as if it were of no more import than choosing a sandwich. Dex didn’t know who they were, in that moment. Perhaps that was why they were smiling.
It is on this detour that the meet Splendid Speckled Mosscap, the robot who chooses to travel with Dex on his quest for the Hermitage in which he believes there still to be crickets.
The two form a friendship. They discuss humanity. They discuss robot life – Mosscap is “wild built” from parts recycled and reconstructed from the original robots who quit mankind – as robots had left humanity so long ago that they had become mythical. They discuss tea and get caught in the rain. The friendship – more than that, the peace that that friendship offers both the dissatisfied Dex and the curious Mosscap – is wonderful. Sentiments that might have seemed trite or sentimental in almost any other voice sound resonant when delivered by a robot – who knew?
There is something so hard to capture with this book – it is philosophical, it is profound, it is heart warming. There are elements of fairytale and of allegory and parable here, and yet the narrative never loses its character or becomes didactic…
It is in short a wonderfully lyrical charming tale, and perhaps one of those tales that the world needs right now.