There were robots in the communities of Panga once. But, shortly before a total environmental collapse, they gained sentience and chose to go into the wilderness, leaving the humans to their own devices. People, for their part, respected this decision, and resolved instead to pull their home back from the brink. They began to live in harmony with nature, rather than impose their industrial will upon it. This resulted, eventually, inevitably, into a veritable Utopia where people prosper alongside nature.
Humans will still be humans, however, and in a perfect world there will still be sadness and anxiety and dissatisfaction. Which is how we find Sibling Dex, a gardener monk. They live a good, decent life in Panga’s only city. But Dex still feels tired: the city is beautiful but stifling; their work is honorable but unfulfilling. Dex finds themself craving stillness and solitude. And so, like countless humans before them, they pack up their life and hit the road. Settling on becoming a tea monk, Dex will travel through Panga’s communities, offering a service that is considered more therapeutic than indulgent in this society.
And so Sibling Dex soon establishes a routine. Restlessness soon rears its eager head once more, though. Feeling exasperated and balking at the concept of once again changing vocations and rebuilding their life, Dex decides on something a little more drastic and abandons it instead. They go off grid, as it were, heading into the wild towards an abandoned hermitage, ostensibly to find a species of cricket believed to be extinct (an obsession and metaphor Dex holds throughout the story), but in reality looking for some sort of enlightenment. Some path towards happiness.
It’s on this road that they stumble upon Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a wild-built robot that has volunteered to essentially check up on the humans and surmise what they need. To that end, it joins Sibling Dex on their journey, engaging in increasingly philosophical conversations that run the gamut of human (and robot) nature along the way.
I have revisited a lot of books in my life. Like most readers, I have perennial favorites that I return to time and again for comfort and the warmth of familiarity. Even so, I can’t recall a time when I’ve picked a book back up so soon after finishing it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the latest from Becky Chambers, which is why, barely a day after I first finished it, I found myself starting the story once more. Which should speak volumes as to how much this short novel affected me.
I’m used to having an emotional connection to Chambers’ particularly charming brand of science fiction. Her books have always filled me with warmth and light. The stories may be about alien beings and life in outer space, but they are primarily about capital-F Feelings, written in poetic prose that sings as it burrows itself into my cold, hollow heart. But 𝘗𝘴𝘢𝘭𝘮 in particular not only managed to wedge itself into that ramshackle muscle, but proceeded to fill it with enough of its sacred song to restore the damn thing back to beating life.
It’s the timing of it all. Stories have a tendency to find you when you need them most. So it was with Psalm, speaking as it did to so many things that have taken up space in my brain this past pandemic year: ecology and environment; stillness and solitude; sorrow and stress; productivity and purpose. I saw myself in this story, and more importantly I felt understood by it. It spoke to me, and its voice, like that of a psalm (or a prayer, or a promise), was one of encouragement and reassurance:
The world may be broken, but it might still be mended. You may be hurting, but you could still be healed. You may be lost, but you can always be found again and again and again.