A Psalm For The Wildbuilt: A Monk And Robot Book by Becky Chambers (book review).

July 16, 2021 | By | Reply More

Centuries ago, the robots of the world gained sentience. Machines that assembled vehicles, filled water bottles and a thousand other tasks for humans became aware and decided they didn’t like what they were doing.

All they had known was the human world they had helped build. They wanted to see something different. Leaving humanity behind, the robots went out into the wild and haven’t been heard from since.

Sibling Dex is unhappy. When the life of a gardener monk that had once fulfilled them had become empty of meaning they changed careers. Retraining a travelling tea monk was difficult at first. Living in a van. Travelling from village to village. Learning how to provide comfort to people with a cup of tea and a willing ear.

Now the emptiness has returned and life feels without purpose. The only thing that inspires them is the sound of cicadas and the idea that far beyond the human settlements the insects still sing. So defying law and custom, Dex takes off into the wild.

After centuries observing the untouched wilderness, the robots have begun to wonder what became of humans. Now Dex is the first human in generations to meet a robot. It has a single question and Dex cannot answer it: what do people need?

I sigh a little every time I see another book that’s a feminist retelling or a queer manifesto. These books are important. All genders and peoples are powerful and deserve to see themselves demonstrate that power in books. I just wish they wouldn’t shout so loudly about their woke-ness. Perhaps that’s the publishing industry and it is not fair of me to avoid books because of it.

This book is just so calm about it all. Reading ‘they’ as a singular pronoun is strange at first but not jarring. It is clearly something author Becky Chambers has normalised for themselves and wants to spread around. The pronouns are placed amongst such lovely prose that everything just damps down against the rush of anxiety those less accustomed have against them and they. Sibling Dex lives very comfortably next to their Brother and Sister monks and it is no cause for any drama at all.

There are no surges of adrenaline as the hero rushes to the rescue or sneaks through enemy territory. This story is both a literal and emotional journey for Sibling Dex and Mosscap, the robot with their pasts unfolding for the reader as they navigate the everyday reality of their historic meeting.

Perhaps it is having a monk as a protagonist but I found ‘A Psalm For The Wild-Built’ to be a very zen read. It could have easily slid into a modern twee tale of a midlife crisis and running away to live in a van in the wild. Instead, it is an eco-utopian vision that sprung from our own dystopian world where people still struggle with the same questions of who they are and what is their purpose.

‘A Psalm For The Wild-Built’ is very different from the scrappy fun hijinks of Chambers award winning ‘The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet.’ While it tackles some of the same issues, such as gender, it does so on a much more personal and individual level.

The distances are kilometres not light years and are trudged through in a much more physical way than travel through the vacuum of space can ever be. There are rocks in Dex’s shoes and branches in their way. The world is very much a part of the journey and not sectioned off for safety.

I’m sure there are many books of a literary and personal journey type that others might compare ‘A Psalm For The Wild Built’ to, but I can’t because I don’t know them. Many Science Fiction novels move the issues of our current world through time and space so they can be seen anew. As wildly different as they are, the story that I would compare it to is ‘The Murderbot Diaries’ by Martha Wells. Wells’ ‘Murderbot’ stories are action and adventure with space battles and alien life forms.

Dex and Mosscap have no dramatic rescues or villains chasing after them or any of the dramas that unfold around Murderbot. Perhaps it’s because they’re both novellas and about robots attempting to live with humans. Perhaps it’s the protagonists searching for a purpose to give their lives greater meaning, I don’t know.

Chambers has written a new bedtime fairy tale to replace the old ones with their life lessons and warnings from an earlier time like ‘don’t go into the woods’ but we’ve taken the danger from the woods and removed most of the wild now.

This is a new fairy tale with new lessons to be learned. About agency. About pronouns. About the impact human society has on the world. This is a book to read aloud, to be shared, when you just need a cup of tea and a space to think about your place in the world.

LK Richardson

June 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 160 page hardback. Price: $20.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-25023-621-0)

check out website: www.TOR.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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