Book review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Chambers has set a new trend in science fiction storytelling. Her works are usually very comfortable, inoffensive, full of hope, and light on technical details. She may not have been the first, but other writers are already being compared to her, and new terms, such as “cozypunk” are being thrown around her stories. This novella is no different. If anything, it feels even more pleasant, less burdened by realistic social sciences and technology, and a little more meditative.

Dex is a tea monk. They didn’t start that way. They was a regular monk in a monastery in the largest city in Panga, but they grew restless and asked to become a tea monk. Their job now consists of biking in their caravan around the circle of satellite towns, setting up shop, listening to people’s stories and worries, and offering them comfort in the form of a cup of tea, specifically mixed and brewed for each individual and worry. Dex has slowly become the best in their job, but they is still not satisfied with their life.

Dex lives in a post-technological world. Generations ago, industrial robots gained consciousness, walked away from their factories, and disappeared in the forests with the vague promise to be back one day. Nobody stopped them. In fact, this served as a wake-up call for the society to move away from industry and technology and into harmony with the nature. Among other things, people designated half of their planet as a wildlife refuge, where no humans are supposed to go.

Dex is now heading there. They has a fixed idea that to achieve inner peace they needs to hear the sound of crickets, which are all but extinct, except of a single place in the wilderness. As they heads there, they comes across a robot, Splendid Speckled Mosscap, who had been sent to engage with humans in order to find out what people actually want. After a little back and forth, the two agree on a deal: Mosscap will guide Dex to the ruins where crickets are said to persist, and Dex will then take Mosscap to the human settlements. Together, they make their way to the ruins, where Mosscap figures out that Dex’s issue lies in the fact that they doesn’t have anyone to tell their worries. Mosscap serves as a surrogate tea monk and comforts Dex. Dex finally relaxes, with the sound of crickets in the background.

As usual, this book has some of Chambers’ hallmarks. In particular, the stakes are very low, tension is non-existent, and the outcome doesn’t really matter. In this shorter format, this results in somewhat flatter characters, which the reader will not sympathize with as much as in her longer works. This is not hurting the book too much, as it is more about the worldbuilding (including mythology), journey to and appreciation of the wilderness, and the self-discovery of a human. Ultimately, the lesson given is that one has to accept and love himself before helping others. This is not a groundbreaking lesson – I’ve heard it from many people ranging from counsellors to my local priest – and it’s not even all that unexpected within the context of this story, so I was a little disappointed at the author’s presentation of the lesson. Because this was so mundane and obvious, the huge revelation fizzled out.

Intellectually, the book left a lot to be desired. What I was really missing was some kind of explanation for the obvious post-scarcity economy the characters in the story were enjoying. After the industrial age, the society seemed to revert to an ecological agrarian economy, but there was no explanation how that would be sustainable. It provided for convenient shortcuts, such as monks having near instant access to resources to change their vocation, and monasteries having the means to help anyone who asked for it, but it sounded so far-fetched that I was pulled out of my enjoyment of such a utopian world.

Emotionally, on the other hand, I enjoyed the book as much as the author’s previous works. It’s simple, unassuming, and it genuinely made me feel good. I like my tea to the extent where even the Irish consider me weird, and mountain thyme is one of my favorite herbal teas. As such, I could identify with Dex at this level, and I could easily imagine how listening to other people’s worries and offering them tea would be helpful. Even such seemingly insignificant desires, such as looking for the sound of crickets, evoked strong positive feelings in me. Once the story reached the wilderness, with no distraction from the overly idealistic society, I genuinely enjoyed reading the book.

Unfortunately, even in the wilderness I found something I didn’t like. Dex and Mosscap sounded so alike that I had troubles distinguishing their voices. Their conversations sounded more like a monologue, or a person like me preparing for an argument while taking a shower. I think it is apt that Dex met Mosscap after just such a shower, and it may have been a subtle hint that Mosscap was actually a figment of Dex’s imagination. If this was so, however, the hint was too subtle for me to take seriously.

Overall, Wild-Built is very pleasant reading for one or two long evenings. On a comfort scale, I’d rank it as one of the most comfortable and slow burning of Chambers’ books. Unfortunately, the reader needs to shut of his brain and possibly get into a meditative state to enjoy the worldbuilding and the journey through civilization and beyond. I will try to remember to pick up the next novella in the series, to see whether there is any character development in store, but personally I prefer the author’s longer works.

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