A Monk And A Robot Meet In A Forest ... And Talk Philosophy In This New Novel
Over the past several months, given the pressures of the world, I've been reading and participating in craft conversations about what constitutes comfort-reading, and the degree to which one can subtract conflict or tension from a story while keeping it engaging and interesting. Becky Chambers' A Psalm for the Wild-Built — beginning a new series called "Monk and Robot" — strikes me as especially relevant to such discussions.
Centuries ago, robots woke to sentience and went on strike, and the humans who made them as laboring tools decided to respect their newfound agency and release them. The robots chose to vanish into the wilderness in order to learn about a world beyond the bounds of human design.
Generations after that decision, Sibling Dex leads a good, comfortable life in a good, comfortable world, one that successfully bounced back from terrible environmental cataclysms and reorganized itself around principles of compassion and hospitality. After spending their youth as a Garden Monk, Dex abruptly changes vocation: They decide to become a Tea Monk, travelling from place to place and offering relief to the weary one brewed cup at a time. There's a nameless dissatisfaction in Dex driving this yearning for movement and change, which they articulate to themselves as a desire to hear the fabled sound of crickets.
Dex develops skill and renown in their chosen enterprise — but over time realizes they've become so absorbed in brewing tea that they've let their cricket-quest fall by the wayside. Renewing their resolve, they find that crickets aren't just scarce in cities, they're nearly extinct. Dex' best shot at hearing some lies in a remote, ruined hermitage far from any roads or human habitations. But shortly after setting out on their new journey, Dex meets something even more unusual: a robot. "Wild-built" from parts ceded from the original sentient few and calling itself Splendid Speckled Mosscap, it declares to Dex that it's on a quest to find out what humans need.
What follows is a quiet, gentle book made up of episodic conversations between Dex and Mosscap as they make their way to the hermitage — conversations about robot and human societies, about history and ecology, and about philosophy, desire and purpose. It's a book rooted in depictions of comfort and questions about what might drive someone to seek discomfort in a world where everyone's basic needs are met. It's an interesting question, and lays solid groundwork for a series in which Mosscap intends to renew robot-human acquaintance.
That said, there are moments I found jarring in their familiarity, where the thing depicted is so fundamentally at odds with the society Dex seems to inhabit that I felt dislocated by the reading. Dex's world isn't frictionless; it certainly contains mundane sorrows, disappointments, and exhaustions, or else Tea Monks would have nothing to do. But it's a world almost completely devoid of threat or precarity — so encountering this very of-the-moment depiction of far-future technology was odd, to say the least:
... they pulled out their pocket computer, as was their habit first thing, dimly aware of the hope that always spurred them to do so — that there might be something good there, something exciting or nourishing, something that would replace the weariness.
As a terminally online human in a world that seems perpetually both on fire and drowning, this makes sense to me; social media absolutely functions as a kind of perpetual motion machine for anxiety, soothing and producing it in carefully unequal measure to keep us engaged and inflamed. Seeing this in Dex's world of generosity and equity, while almost certainly intended as a relatable wink to the reader, instead effected a strange kind of transparency, not so much unsuspending my disbelief as just eliminating the fantasy entirely.
These moments in the book are few and far between, but they stand out disproportionately in such a soft and slender work as odd knots of dissonance. Dex lives in a place where people will build you a beautiful mobile home because you need one and ask for nothing in return, and so much of the book is devoted to the pleasure — indeed, the spiritual necessity — of comfort, found in good food, genial company, a well-made bed. Seeing the discomforts of our specific moment — roughly analogous to the Factory Age of Dex's history — feel like cracks in a façade when they don't seem intended to be.
These minor observations aside, A Psalm for the Wild-Built begins a series that looks optimistic and hopeful, pursuing stories that arise from abundance instead of scarcity, kindness instead of cruelty, and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.
Amal El-Mohtar is the Hugo-award winning author of The Honey Month, co-author with Max Gladstone of This Is How You Lose the Time War, and writes the Otherworldly column for the New York Times Book Review.