By Shae Davidson
Reading Becky Chambers’ beautiful, slender novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built took longer than I’d expected.
The novel’s tone invites slowly exploring the text while listening to birds singing early in the morning or the sound of evening rain. As the story unfolded I found myself drifting away from the text, taking time to reflect on the ideas of happiness and purpose, consider the personal nature of history, make tea in my favorite cup, and mentally wander along forest paths I hadn’t thought about in decades.
The tea monk Sibling Dex roams the forested moon Panga, offering the right blend of teas to world-weary visitors seeking to unload their troubles or enjoy a few quiet minutes. On a broader level, Dex is simply present for people who visit their cart. A gnawing sense of dissatisfaction drives them to break this routine and set off into the wildness in search of the ruins of a hermitage.
Traveling deep into the forest, Dex meets the robot Mosscap, and agrees to help it learn about the human world in exchange for help finding the ancient monastery.
The meeting between the two takes place in a world that has survived and blossomed after an apocalyptic change. Centuries earlier, industrial robots gained sentience. Horrified at the idea of enslaving thinking, self-aware beings, humans agreed to let robots live their own lives beyond human communities.
This moment marked a huge shift in the way humans saw their own status, and led to dramatic changes in society. New economies and communities evolved, no longer reliant on industrial capitalism. The landscape healed as human activity became more local and sustainable.
Chambers alludes to more than she describes, giving readers hints about both human and robot society that invite quiet thought and comparisons to our world. Mosscap’s account of the way robots name themselves, for example, sent me to articles about the dreamlike, lyrical accounts of whales naming themselves at birth, and the description of the rhythms of life in the human towns that Dex feels like a small portion of a beautiful complex whole.
Solarpunk and hopepunk come to mind as Chambers describes her world, but there’s a cozy edge that feels closer in spirit to the more introspective moments in The Wind in the Willows.
The journey to the ruined monastery gives the pair a chance to learn about themselves and their world; both characters have complex relationships to the past.
Mosscap understands itself as a complex whole made from the pieces of earlier robots—a composite being with individual preferences and experiences who has been shaped by the now subconscious memories and experiences of previous generations.
This robot embodies Robin Wall Kimmerer’s notion that “we remember things we did not know.” and has an almost visceral response to “remnants”—impulses and perceptions inherited from earlier robots.
Dex’s life has been shaped by an imagined history that they picked up without critical examination, a narrative that leaves the robots an unchanging, unknowable others after they left to create their own communities. The liberation of Panga’s robots has become a mythical event, and at times Dex proves reluctant to explore nuances in the story or consider the many ways in which the world has evolved.
For example, Mosscap horrifies Dex by inviting them to touch the ID plaque belonging to their earliest robot ancestor, and is surprised by the ways in which robots adapted technology after they gained their freedom.
The themes of purpose and happiness become the focus of their discussions as they travel.
Their reflections echo ideas explored in Daoism. Firmly connecting experience and growth to a set purpose can became a trap. Dex’s dissatisfaction and sense of tension with the world around them reflects this, emerging as routine and status began to dominate their work.
As they learn more about the ways in which robots imagined their place in the world and their relationships to each other in the years after their liberation, Dex comes to understand that purpose can emerge from simply being in the world and finding one’s own happiness, and that striving to create and fulfill a set purpose can become a distraction and lead to anger and frustration.
Chambers’ beautiful, reflective novella raises many questions about community and personal life, and her writing gives readers the chance to engage with complex ideas while immersed in a rich world.
Historian Shae Davidson has worked in industrial and social history museums throughout Appalachia and has taught in West Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois. Shae’s past publications have included articles in Turning Wheel and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.
Editor: Dana Gornall