A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY by Becky Chambers

a prayer for the crown-shy by becky chambersRenowned tea monk Sibling Dex and wayfaring robot Splendid Speckled Mosscap have come out of the wilderness of Panga. Putting their search for fulfillment on hold, Sibling Dex accompanies the eager and inquisitive robot on its mission to find out what exactly, if anything, humanity needs. To that end they hit the road, stopping at the various and radiantly diverse human communities of the moon and taking with grace and gratitude the experiences and lessons they each have to offer.

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built was my favorite read of last year, what with its gentle, quiet story about two lost souls trying to understand one another as well as themselves speaking to this particular lost soul in a way few other stories have. It’s no surprise that its follow-up, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, was my most anticipated read this year. I’m not great with series, usually, often finding them to be a bit too inconsistent for my liking. But it’s a testament to author Becky Chambers’ talent (or rather, perhaps, to my undying love for her writing) that I had absolutely no concerns or anxieties over this book prior to its release — no worries about whether it was going to live up to any expectations my brain may have thought up. Only a certainty I was going to enjoy it immensely. It was more of a feeling than anything, which is, I think, the appropriate approach to the kind of books Chambers writes. 

Part of that assurance was due to the inherent plotless nature of these Monk and Robot stories. Chambers has doubled down on her most common criticism that “nothing happens in her books,” arguing that reading about people simply living life, in all its intricate and complex threads, can be as compelling as any conflict-laden drama.

When I think about my life in the real world that I find most interesting or most captivating, they’re all the most ordinary things. Life is interesting. 

— FanFiAddict, “Author Chat with Becky Chambers” 

Both Psalm and Prayer are slice-of-life in the truest sense of the term — more vignettes than they are full episodes dense with schemes and action. These books feel less like you are reading than you are just having a conversation with a couple of  friends (albeit of the particularly empathetic and reflective sort), but that’s part of their charm and their oh-so-comforting appeal. Your mileage may, of course, vary with this style of storytelling, but I find myself gravitating to these book-shaped warm embraces the older I get and the more weight of the world I feel. 

Which is all a roundabout way of saying I loved reading this book. I loved spending time in its warm solarpunk world. Loved the themes it explores of listening to what your body and your spirit need, and how that may or may not relate to your perceived purpose in life. 

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I finished Psalm last year thinking it was the book I needed to read at that particular moment in my life. I wasn’t expecting this book to do the same, to have my life reflected in such a stark, revealing manner again — but even in that aspect Prayer managed to deliver. I’ve been through a lot these past couple of months, my personal life subjected to much change and upheaval. Most of these developments are for the better, but I still find myself feeling tired and weary and uncertain (not to mention guilty for feeling all of this in the first place). 

They’d spent too much time around tired folks to not recognize the same condition in themself. They were running up against a wall, and it didn’t matter whether they understood where the wall had come from, or what it was made of. The only way to get through it was to stop trying, for a while.

This prayer, like the psalm before it, is another reminder (and a promise): Whatever it is you’re going through is valid, and doesn’t need to be justified, to neither anyone nor yourself, and that it’s okay —  and vital and necessary — to just give your boisterous brain and rattled, anxious body a damn break sometimes.

You don’t have to have a reason to be tired. You don’t have to earn rest or comfort. You’re allowed to just be.

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These books mean a hell of a lot to me, so you can imagine my sadness upon learning that Chambers has no imminent plans to continue writing further Monk and Robot books, choosing to focus on other creative projects. Although I supposed it was to be expected, endings being such a prominent theme in Prayer. There’s Mosscap grappling with its own mortality after a piece of its body breaks down and it struggles over the ethics of having it repaired or replaced. Most poignantly, in the final chapters, we see the robot admit to not wanting to reach the final destination of its tour with the monk, fearing it would mean the end — of their travels together; of their talks; of their companionship. Sibling Dex feels very much the same. Neither of them wants their time together to come to a close. Neither did I. Indeed, when the ending did finally arrive in such a breviloquent manner, it caught me so much by surprise that my immediate reaction was just to sob. I simply wasn’t ready. I adore so, so many things about these books, but these two characters are the true gift Chambers has given us. I miss them already.

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers

a-psalm-for-the-wild-built-by-becky-chambersThere 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 serenity and tranquility. 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.

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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.

TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE by Becky Chambers

to-be-taught,-if-fortunate-by-becky-chambersEvery time I’ve picked up a book by Becky Chambers I have ended up loving it. And every time after I’m done reading I sit down and try to get my thoughts out on the page. And every single time I fail to do so.

I guess it’s because her stories emotionally resonate with me so dang much. I’ve always had a hard time talking about my feelings (hi I am a Leo), and Becky Chambers stories, for me, are all feelings. Things happen, to be sure, and sometimes there is even some sort conflict. But there’s never what you might call a “traditional plot.” In these stories things happen because… life. That’s what life is. ⠀

That the characters Chambers writes about happen to lead such interesting and human lives is part of the appeal for me. ⠀

And I use the term “human” very deliberately. Because even though Chambers work is full of capital-A Alien creatures and complex concepts, at their core they are some of the more human stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across. There are always at least a couple of scenes that move me to tears, and that was also the case with To Be Taught, If Fortunate. (One scene affected me so much that I startled my partner by suddenly turning to her, eyes watering up. She asked me what was wrong, and I couldn’t quite say, so I just told her the entire storyline up until that point. It seemed the only sensible thing.)⠀

“Hopepunk” is the term that’s being floated around for the newish type of science fiction that proposes a more optimistic outlook for humanity. Chambers’ books are more than representative of this blossoming genre, with the sort of narratives that may not entirely thrill your more spirited storytelling sensibilities, but which will instead, if fortunate, nourish your soul. ⠀

More than welcome in these divisive, cynical times.