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.
First published: 2021
When I found out Becky Chambers had a new book coming out, I was both very excited and a bit apprehensive. Her Wayfarers series is my favourite series of all time (you can read why here) so of course, I wanted to read more by her, but I was a little bit scared that my love for her wouldn’t extend beyond Wayfarers. Luckily, those fears turned out to be completely unfounded! A Psalm for the Wild-Built was one of the easiest 5 stars I’ve ever given to a book, and I am now officially proclaiming Becky Chambers my favourite author, period.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a sci-fi novella, and it’s the first one in a new series (the second one comes out later this year already!). It tells the story of Sibling Dex, who is unsatisfied with the life they live and decides they want to become a tea monk. This means they will lead a nomadic existence traveling around the world and serving tea to people. The tea they serve will be based on the person’s needs: do they need something comforting and calming or something invigorating? Even though at 147 pages this is only a very short book, Chambers takes her time describing the rituals Sibling Dex performs as a tea monk and I really appreciated that. It provided a clear sense of the gravity and the importance of this simple act of kindness, of serving tea to people and occasionally listening to their problems.
It also set the tone for the entire story. Something all of Becky Chambers’ stories have in common is their effect on me. Her stories feel like a breath of fresh air, a calm moment within the storm, and they always manage to make me feel better. They soothe and comfort me, while at the same time giving me something to think about. They provide insight in human connection and give me hope for humanity. That is why she is my favourite author.
But, I digress – back to this story. Sibling Dex sets out on a lonesome journey to find a new purpose in life, and on that journey they meet a robot called Mosscap. No human being has seen a robot in centuries, so this is rather unique. Mosscap tells Dex that it has been given the task to go out into the world and find out what humans need, in the broadest sense of the word. Dex and Mosscap travel on together and learn from each other about their separate cultures.
Their conversations were wonderful and enlightening, and even though not much happens in this book, I wasn’t bored for a second. Ultimately, the big question that every one of Becky Chambers’ books explores is: what does it mean to be alive? Alive being the key word here, because she isn’t just interested in humanity. In Psalm, she explores robots where in Wayfarers she looked at different species (‘aliens’) as well as AI, but she also pays close attention to other types of living beings, and treats all of these entities with the utmost respect. The world of Psalm seems to be rather utopian: in previous times, there was a catastrophe that made people realise they couldn’t continue on with their materialistic, capitalist ways (the c-word is never explicitly mentioned, but it feels very clear that that is what is meant here). Afterwards, they created a sustainable way of living that revolves around balance, and not taking more from the earth than they’re giving to it. It’s a hopeful way of looking at the world that I really love.
I saw someone on Goodreads starting their review of this book with the sentence “Becky Chambers’ writing feels like home to me”, and I feel exactly the same way. I already talked about the soothing effect her stories have on me, and the writing obviously plays a big part in that. It flows beautifully while at the same time moving at a brisk pace, and it’s intelligent and loving at the same time. To me, there’s nothing quite like it. In Psalm, her descriptions of the world of Panga instantly made me feel like I was there and I felt Sibling Dex’s longing in my bones because of her words. She’s an absolute master at writing complex characters, even in short novellas like this one, and I can’t wait to read more about Dex and Mosscap when the second novella comes out this summer!