Becky Chambers’ quiet new sci-fi novella invites introspection
In the spring, Becky Chambers concluded her Hugo Award-winning Wayfarer series with The Galaxy and the Ground Within. This summer, she starts her Monk and Robot series of novellas with the July 13 release of A Psalm for the Wild-Built.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is, in certain ways, a response to Walter M. Miller Jr.’s classic 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. In both, a monkish protagonist in a post-cataclysm world, though happy in vows, is ill at ease with the structure of their life. But where Miller’s world was hectic, politically riven, geographically poisoned and medieval in many aspects, including its binary heteronormativity, Chambers’ moon is more idyllic. It’s not perfect, but it’s far more welcoming than the one facing Brother Francis Gerard at the opening of Canticle.
The genre is not epic but eclogue, or pastoral dialogue. The tone is not bardic but meditative. As Chambers remarks on her blog, she wrote “a huge dose of chill, because that’s what I needed to write this year, and I figure you might be in a similar mood.”
In that same post, Chambers calls the novella a “mellow solarpunk journey on an imagined moon.” That’s a good characterization. Panga is divided into two. Half is a wilderness side and half a human side, where life exists in a shire-like rurality imbued with organic tech and benevolent religiosity. Some centuries ago, after robots suddenly achieved self-consciousness, humans and robots separated and, by mutual agreement, the robots went to live in the wilderness.
We arrive in Panga on the day when Sibling Dex suddenly decides to leave their job as a Garden Monk to become a Tea Monk. What does this mean? Well, though a virtual flood of “electronic ink had been spilled over the old tradition,” the latter’s job “could be boiled down” (pun presumably intended) to — “listen to people, give tea.”
The unassuming simplicity of this opening premise belies a complexity and a subtle insistence. On Panga, as on Earth, listening to people sounds easy but is actually difficult. But by naming it early, Chambers gives “listen to people” thematic strength. The subtle insistence comes from the fact that Sibling Dex belongs to a religious order that names initiates according to their gender. Chambers quietly underscores Dex’s preference for they/their pronouns in the opening section by their honorific “Sibling,” compared to the honorifics of others such as Sister Fern and Brother Baskin.
Sibling Dex is in constant internal conversation. Though there is some minimal plot and journeying, that monologue and the dialogue with their fascinating chance companion – the wonderfully named robot Splendid Speckled Mosscap — provides the substance of Psalm for the Wild-Built.
Mosscap, who proudly uses it/its pronouns, quickly becomes their partner in adventure. And, although Chambers sells the scene as “I love spending time with these characters,” there’s a real danger of just idealizing both seekers. The constructive discussions they have about the nature of life are fun and enlightening, but the characters both seem a bit too perfect to have traction for the reader.
This is a departure. Where the Wayfarer novels are hectic, jostling and picaresque, full of flawed beings, Psalm for the Wild-Built shares with Dex and Mosscap a desire for peace and a search for purpose. Their joint quest for meaning or even just a literal path through the woods gives them opportunity to learn about each other and themselves as we listen.
Chambers’ 2015 debut, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, was the first Wayfarer novel and won both acclaim and Kickstarter funding to turn her into a professional science-fiction writer. Over the past six years and with the strength of Wayfarers, Chambers has become a significant voice in contemporary science fiction. With this gentle, exploratory bildungsromanette, she reaps the benefit of not having to elbow her way into an audience, but to speak to one ready-gathered. Dex and Mosscap’s philosophical probings into purpose may take place on Panga, but they are clearly aimed at Earth.
(Tordotcom, July 13, 2021)