A Psalm for the Wild-Built begins with this knockout first line: “If you ask six different monks the question of which godly domain robot consciousness belongs to, you’ll get seven different answers.” What a way to set up this world and its philosophies. Anyone familiar with Becky Chamber’s Wayfarer series won’t be surprised by her skill at establishing rich and nuanced worlds that are simultaneously believable and wonderfully unbelievable at the same time. And her new science fiction novella about monks and robots does so immediately and wonderfully.
Dex is a tea-monk. Well, they didn’t start out that way. They used to live in a city, in a modern monastery, with lots of other monks. But they missed the sound of grasshoppers–not that they’d ever heard it before–and thought traveling to different towns closer to the wilderness might bring them the joy of that sound and a certain sense of fulfillment they’ve been lacking.
So they do. And they become pretty dang good at it, at listening to people and serving them the perfect blend of tea with all the herbs and spices they’ve begun to collect over the years. It’s a good calling. And yet somehow Dex still feels that something’s missing.
And then a robot walks out of the woods.
Splendid Speckled Mosscap, to be exact. That’s the name of the moss-covered robot that walks out of the wilderness to greet Dex one day. To be clear: Dex lives in a world where the knowledge of robots’ existence is common. But it’s also a historical fact. Kind of like if an extinct Dodo bird just waddled up to you one day. You know of them, but you certainly never expected to meet one during your lifetime.
That’s because in this world, robots evolved consciousness hundreds of years ago in the Awakening. They left civilization for the wilderness and were never seen again. In response, humanity had to finally confront the way in which the Factory Age was destroying the world they lived in and develop more sustainable ways of living.
I think my favorite thing about this book is the peacefulness of it, the understated optimism of a world that has already faced it’s climate crisis and overcome it. A Psalm for the Wild-Built falls into a sub-category of science-fiction known as solarpunk, a genre defined by its almost revolutionary optimism in a time when science-fiction often deals with darker themes. And understandably so. (As a fun aside: the sub-genre of cyberpunk was created in part as a backlash against the optimist of sci-fi at the time. What goes around, comes around, I guess.) Nonetheless, it’s really refreshing to see a book that doesn’t disregard the need for a future in which human beings discover a way to live in sync with the natural world, but also shows up a hopeful look at what that future could be.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is fairly philosophical, like most of Chambers’ writing, considering consciousness and the inevitability of death and the purpose of life, and why we so deeply feel the need for a purpose in the first place. It’s one of those books you can’t put down, but, once I did at the end, it left me feeling content and introspective.
This short read packs a lot of punch in its 160 pages–not something easily done. And its optimism and casual envisioning of a sustainable future and the fulfilling lives we could live in it make it an important read for our times. And the good news? You’ll enjoy every second of it.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built will be available from your local bookstore on July 13, 2021.