In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers's delightful new Monk & 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.
Becky Chambers's new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?
If you ask six different monks the question of which godly domain robot consciousness belongs to, you’ll get seven different answers.
I didn’t think I had missed anything by accidentally reading A Prayer for the Crown-Shy before A Psalm for the Wild-Built, but I may have been very wrong. I loved the world described in A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, but A Psalm for the Wild-Built adds a richness that I didn’t realise was missing.
Dex was the best tea monk in Panga, if the chatter was to be believed. They didn’t believe such hyperbole themself, and it’s not like anything about their work was a competition. But their tea was good. They knew this. They’d worked hard. They put their heart into it. Everywhere they went, they saw smiles, and Dex knew that it was their work—their work!—that brought those out. They brought people joy. They made people’s day. That was a tremendous thing, when you sat and thought about it. That should’ve been enough. That should’ve been more than enough. And yet, if they were completely honest, the thing they had come to look forward to most was not the smiles nor the gifts nor the sense of work done well, but the part that came after all of that. The part when they returned to their wagon, shut themself inside, and spent a few precious, shapeless hours entirely alone.
Why wasn’t it enough?
I loved seeing how Sibling Dex transitioned into becoming a tea monk and their quest for crickets and purpose. Their first interaction with Mosscap was also surprisingly humorous, and I loved the awkwardness and uncertainty that persisted as they learned how to coexist.
“So, if Two Foxes is into bird calls, what about you? What’s your thing?”
“Insects!” Mosscap cried. Its voice was jubilant, as if it had spent every second prior waiting for Dex to broach the topic. “Oh, I love them so much. And arachnids, too. All invertebrates, really. Although I do also love mammals. And birds. Amphibians are also very good, as are fungi and mold and—” It paused, catching itself. “You see, this is my problem. Most of my kind have a focus—not as sharply focused as Two Foxes or Black Marbled Rockfrog, necessarily, but they have an area of expertise, at least. Whereas I … I like everything. Everything is interesting. I know about a lot of things, but only a little in each regard.” Mosscap’s posture changed at this. They hunched a bit, lowered their gaze. “It’s not a very studious way to be.”
“I can think of a bunch of monks who’d disagree with you on that,” Dex said. “You study Bosh’s domain, it sounds like. In a very big, top-down kind of way. You’re a generalist. That’s a focus.”
Mosscap’s eyes widened. “Thank you, Sibling Dex,” it said after a moment. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
There’s something so calming and peaceful about this world. The awareness and focus on conscious actions is beautiful, and the thought that our world could work like this one day paints a hopeful picture. All we need is for robots to gain consciousness and decide to be peaceful rather than vengeful. That could happen, right?
I almost want to reread A Prayer for the Crown-Shy again already to see if the information given in A Psalm for the Wild-Built changes how the narrative reads. Almost.