Not to judge a book by its cover or anything, but frankly I expected more robots in Becky Chambers’ Psalm for the Wild Built. I mean, there’s one on the cover, but you don’t even hear about a single robot until halfway through.
That said, once I moved past my precious expectations, I found this Psalm a lovely, brief story about finding one’s place in the world, whether one is a robot or a lost tea monk. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sibling Dex is the aforementioned tea monk, who only turned to that particular part of the siblinghood after feeling unsettled by their service as a garden monk. Although they learn the art of tea monk-ing quickly, which involves both brewing a tea for whatever ails a person and listening sympathetically as said person talks about whatever ails them, they find they still feel no more settled than they did in the gardens. There is still happiness in their askew sense of self, but something’s missing. They want to hear crickets. They want to roam around to until they find the amorphous “it” that eludes them.
Their travels take them into the wild, far away from the usual settlements, and it is there that they run into the cover-promised robot, Mosscap. Humans long ago divided themselves from robots, after finding out the machines they created to help build their disposable world had accidentally become sentient. For generations since, robots have been hardly more than a legend, so much so that Dex does not even consider robots as a thing they might encounter on their journey. So it’s quite a surprise to find a seven-foot robot calling itself Splendid Speckled Mosscap (after the mushroom) outside Dex’s trailer.
Mosscap has volunteered and been chosen to dip a toe back into the human world to see how the robots’ creators have changed in the interim but doesn’t know where to start. Following Dex seems like a good option, so the odd couple heads deep into the unpaved, nature-reclaimed wilds to try to answer two burning questions: What do humans want? And, more specifically, what does Dex want?
Chambers has a knack for consistently writing prose that is lovely yet a bit tongue-in-cheek, and characters that are sincere without being too serious. That balance works perfectly in Psalm, where the main character is a tea monk with an existential crisis. The world Dex inhabits may be one filled with ennui for one tea monk, but in other ways it looks like a more hopeful future for humans than we’re pointed toward now. The tablet Dex is gifted at the age of sixteen is still in good working condition over ten years later, because it was built to last. (Laughs in obsolete three-year-old phone.) Recognizing the harm continued servitude would do to sentient robots, the humans of Dex’s world have revamped their entire philosophy to production. As a result, there are less things, but there are better things, and those things are built with an eye toward ethical and sustainable production. Which sounds like a whole lot of woke buzzwords strung together, but it sounds like a pretty nice way to be. A utopia, in a way, even if Dex doesn’t feel like it’s exactly perfect for them.
I complained earlier about an initial lack of robots, and it’s true that, if there was even the faintest whisper about robots in the first half of the book, I missed it completely. What’s less true is that I missed the robot. I assumed that was merely some quirky cover art that was more of a metaphorical than literal element in the book. That there was an actual robot suddenly appearing in the forest was a bit of a surprise that I feel should have been telegraphed in some way beforehand, but I’m not Chambers’ editor. Mosscap, though, is so earnest and charming that there’s little to complain about it, and even saying maybe robots should have been telegraphed earlier in the book sounds like nit-picking against the inquisitive and thoughtful being that is Mosscap.
Mosscap’s journey and Dex’s have their similarities, especially in that both are far too large for a single journey to answer. What do humans want? Dex tells Mosscap that changes from person to person; Dex themself doesn’t even know what they want, making Mosscap’s journey seem impossible. And that’s how it feels, isn’t it? When a person doesn’t know what they want and can’t figure out why they’re unhappy. How do you define a lack? How can you say what can fill a gap when you don’t know the shape of it? Dex’s struggle is poignant and it’s easy to feel for them. Maybe one of the reasons I tore through the last bit of Psalm was to if Chambers had any wisdom for Dex that I could steal for myself.
Whether or not that’s true is a spoiler, and there’s no sense in spoiling Psalm. It’s lovely and it’s short. Open the cover and see for yourself.