A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Dex is a tea monk. They travel from village to village, listening to people’s woes and offering them just the right cup of tea. Dex’s heartfelt goal, though, is to hear crickets chirp. Since the Great Agreement, when robots and humans separated after the robots gained consciousness in the Factory Age and perceived that they were being oppressed, humans had not ventured into the wilderness, and crickets are nearly extinct. Dex listens to recordings of crickets’ songs on their pocket computer, but it is not the same. One day, Dex cancels their appointments and turns the tea wagon toward uncharted territory, headed for the Hermitage, the last place crickets had been heard.

Mosscap stepped out of the woods, all seven feet of it, into the little campsite. Dex was taking an outdoor shower at the time, so this first contact between a robot and a human was even more disconcerting than it could have been. Mosscap has been sent to see how the humans are doing after all these years, and it is delighted to accompany Dex to the Hermitage, even though it has absolutely not been invited, especially because it asks endless questions.

This charming little story is unexpectedly deep. While Dex is searching for the meaning of life, the robot is questioning all of their habits and decisions, which forces Dex to think about things they have always taken for granted. The world-building is unique, taking place on an earth-like moon called Panga with a pantheon of gods being worshipped by various harmonious groups. Although it is somewhat post-apocalyptic, it is not bleak. Rather, humans have returned to a simpler life with low-tech, hands-on jobs enhanced with tiny technology, such as solar panels, personal water filtration tanks, and pocket computers that last for years. The culture is an almost utopian idea of what we could be if we abandoned the insane desperation of our consumerist addiction.

The pronoun for nonbinary, restless Dex is “they,” while the pronoun for nonhuman, cheerful Mosscap is “it.” The singular use of a plural pronoun still trips up this former grammar teacher, and I do wish that we could come up with a completely different alternative that won’t send me searching back through the paragraph to find the other people.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is unlike anything you’ve read before. The tone is quietly joyful and sweet, and I knew that I had to read it as soon as I heard about tea monks. At 160 pages, it just begins to whet the appetite, so I am pleased to see that Becky Chambers has a sequel coming out in July called A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I am already on the holds list.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. @tordotcom

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