Over the past several months, given the pressures of the world, I have read and participated in craft conversations about what constitutes comfort reading and how much conflict or tension can be removed from any story. by keeping it engaging and interesting. . Becky chambers A psalm for the wild-built – start a new series called “Monk and Robot” – seems to me particularly relevant for such discussions.
Centuries ago, robots woke up and went on strike, and the humans who made them as working tools decided to respect their new agency and set them free. The robots chose to disappear into the wilderness in order to discover a world beyond the limits of human conception.
Generations after this decision, Sibling Dex leads a good and comfortable life in a good and comfortable world, which has managed to bounce back from terrible environmental cataclysms and reorganized itself around the principles of compassion and hospitality. After spending his youth as a Garden Monk, Dex abruptly changes their vocation: they decide to become a Tea Monk, traveling from place to place and offering relief to the tired brewed mug at the same time. There is an unnamed dissatisfaction with Dex that drives this yearning for movement and change, which they express to themselves as a desire to hear the legendary sound of crickets.
Dex grows his skills and fame in the company he has chosen, but over time he realizes that they have become so engrossed in the tea infusion that they have given up on their pursuit of cricket. Renewing their resolve, they discover that crickets are not only rare in cities, they are almost extinct. Dex’s best shot at hearing lies in a remote, crumbling hermitage away from any road or human habitation. But soon after embarking on their new journey, Dex encounters something even more unusual: a robot. “Built in the wild” from parts donated by the original few sentient people and calling himself the Splendid Speckled Mosscap, he tells Dex he’s on a quest to find out what humans need.
What follows is a calm and gentle book made up of episodic conversations between Dex and Mosscap as they make their way to the Hermitage – conversations about robotic and human societies, history and ecology, and philosophy. , desire and purpose. It’s a book rooted in representations of comfort and questions about what might cause someone to seek discomfort in a world where everyone’s basic needs are met. It’s an interesting question, and lays a solid foundation for a series in which Mosscap intends to reconnect with the robot-human.
That said, there are times that I have found shocking in their familiarity, where the thing depicted is so fundamentally at odds with the society Dex seems to inhabit that I felt dislocated by the reading. The world of Dex is not without friction; it certainly contains sorrows, disappointments and worldly exhaustion, otherwise the tea monks would have nothing to do. But it’s a world almost completely devoid of threat or precariousness – so encountering this current representation of the technology of the future was odd to say the least:
… they pulled out their handhelds, as was their habit at first, vaguely aware of the hope that has always driven them – that there might be something good out there, something exciting or nourishing, something that would replace fatigue.
As a terminally ill human in a world that seems perpetually both on fire and drowning, this makes sense to me; social media absolutely functions as a sort of perpetual motion machine for anxiety, calming it down and producing it to a carefully uneven extent to keep us engaged and inflamed. Seeing this in the world of generosity and fairness of Dex, while almost certainly meant as a nod to the reader, has rather caused a strange sort of transparency, not so much to negate my disbelief as to eliminate. completely the fantasy.
These moments in the book are rare, but they stand out disproportionately in a work as soft and slender as strange knots of dissonance. Dex lives in a place where people will build you a nice mobile home because you need it and ask for nothing in return, and much of the book is devoted to the pleasure – indeed, the spiritual necessity – of comfort, that found in good food. , great company, a well-made bed. Seeing the ailments of our specific moment – roughly analogous to the Factory Age of Dex story – feels like cracks in a facade when they don’t seem meant to be.
These minor remarks aside, A psalm for the wild-built begins a series that seems upbeat and hopeful, pursuing stories that stem from abundance instead of scarcity, kindness instead of cruelty, and I can’t wait to see where that goes.
Amal El Mohtar is the Hugo award-winning author of Honey month, co-author with Max Gladstone of This is how you lose the time war, and write it Column from another world for the New York Times Book Review.