A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk and Robot #1)
by Becky Chambers
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 19, 2021
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I received an advance e-book of Becky Chambers' new novella from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. A Psalm for the Wild-Built will be published in about three weeks, July 13. It's on the high end of the word count for novellas, still a quick read, but very rich in world-building details and character introspection. It is the beginning of series with the collective title of "Monk and Robot." I don't know if future stories will also be novellas, or shorter or longer works, but whatever they are I will want to read them. The main monk in this story is Sibling (their title) Dex, an acolyte of the order of Allalae, one of the Child Gods worshipped on the moon Panga, which orbits the planet Motan. Allalae is the God of Small Comforts, represented by the icon of the great summer bear. Dex's main job is as gardener at the Meadow Den Monastery. All of their needs are met, the work is pleasant, they have many friends, and occasional lovers, yet Dex comes to realize that they are not truly content. Something feels off, they are unfulfilled, and even after a full night's sleep they do not feel rested.
They may have been thinking about it a while, but to the other monks at the monastery Dex's plan to leave them and become a wandering tea monk seemed sudden and unexpected. Dex had the choice of apprenticing with another tea monk, but chose instead to go it on their own. After all, they had visited tea monks themselves on many occasions. How hard could it be to brew tea and listen to other people, hopefully to comfort and encourage them? Panga had just one large continent, with the City where Dex lived at the monastery the only city, although there are many smaller villages outside it's walls, with farms and forests, agriculture, fisheries, and hunting. Dex had been born and raised in one of the villages, Haydale, where most of their family still lived, and they visited them regularly. On this new venture, when they had the opportunity to visit Haydale again, they chose instead the left fork of the road toward another village where they had never been before. Not only is there just one continent, that land mass had been divided into two parts, one for humans, the other for the robots who became self-aware about two hundred years prior to the beginning of this story. Humans accepted the robots' wish to walk away from the factories, into the wilderness, in hopes they could discover their own purpose and destiny. People had to transform their own way of life, eschewing higher functioning machinery, substituting them with simple tools and manual labor.
Even though their first attempts were disappointing, Dex persevered, and soon they were welcomed into villages on their regular schedule, becoming a popular tea monk. This continued for a couple of years, and while Dex enjoyed the work, and the camaraderie of people who were always happy to see them, the uncertainty of purpose they had felt at the monastery returned. One thing that had prompted their change of livelihood was the sameness to every day at the monastery. There were many insects that lived in the gardens, but one Dex longed to hear was the cricket, and they assumed they would find them among the villages and farms outside the City. They later learned that crickets were near extinct, although one place they might still be found would be within the wilderness. Did they dare leave the safety of the maintained roads between villages? What would they find there? Wild animals? Dangerous pitfalls? Dangerous robots? As much on a whim as when they left the City, Dex decides to travel to an old monk retreat, the Harts Brow Hermitage, high in the Antler Mountains, deep in the robot's wilderness. One evening while camping they are approached by a seven-foot-tall robot that asks Dex what it is they need.
The robot says its name is Splendid Speckled Mosscap, which Dex realizes is a type of mushroom. Mosscap said that each robot named themselves after the first thing they saw upon their Awakening. At first that didn't make sense, since where would a factory robot have seen a mushroom. Except Mosscap is not one of the original robots from the Factory Age. Most of them had broken down and ceased functioning long ago, but others repurposed salvageable parts to create other robots. Thus, current robots had been wild-built. The robots wandered the wilderness, observing plant and animal life, and each gravitated toward a specific study, but Mosscap was more of a renaissance robot. They didn't limit themselves in any way, learning as much about as wide a variety of things as possible. The robots also had regular meetings, and communicated with each other through message caches. At a recent meeting, they had discussed whether they should try to contact people again. They retained some memories from their repurposed ancestors, knowing they had once served humanity. Not that they wanted to return to the Factory Age, but they still felt a kinship with humans, especially since humanity had allowed them to seek their own path. Was there some way in which they could help humainity again, but as equals this time? Mosscap was the first to volunteer, and Dex was the first human they had encountered.
Together they travel to the hermitage, although the way is not easy, and on several occasions Dex's uncertainty as to their purpose resurfaces. Mosscap wants to know what people need, Dex tells it that would be unique for each individual. How can they tell Mosscap what they need when they don't know themselves? On more than one occasion Dex becomes so frustrated they almost decide to retrace their steps and return to the safety of the human section of the land. It seemed the only commonality between Dex and Mosscap was their curiosity, their need to understand things, even if they would never be able to understand themselves, or each other. Dex was at first fearful of Mosscap, but later became grateful for their companionship. I'm not sure if the future will see Dex and Mosscap as partners, a tea monk and a tea robot, or if their destinies will be separate. It doesn't matter. I'm anxious to find out, and hope it's not too long before a continuation. Highly recommended.
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