Robyn Reviews: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Becky Chambers is an innovator of the sci-fi genre, known for writing beautiful, cosy, heartwarming books superficially about aliens and space travel, but really more about human psychology and relationships. After the success of her wonderful Wayfarers quartet and standalone novellas, she’s returned with a new series of novellas closer to the ground in a post-utopian setting. Chambers is one of my favourite authors, but unfortunately, whilst this has much to like, it didn’t quite work for me.

In Panga, the robots downed tools centuries ago, vanishing into the wildnerness. These days, no-one is quite sure if the days of robotic servants existed at all.

Sibling Dex is a tea monk – a traveller who provides a listening ear and a soothing cup of tea to all who need it. They’ve honed their craft – but after years on the road, they can’t help but yearn for something more. Feeling lost, they set out in search of answers. However, their peaceful pilgrimage is interrupted by the arrival of someone quite unexpected: a robot, there to honour the centuries old promise of checking in. The robot cannot leave until it’s answered the question of what humanity needs. As Dex and the robot fall into uneasy companionship, the question looms. How do you define what is a want, and what is a need?

Sibling Dex makes an excellent protagonist. A dreamer, they feel constantly unfulfilled despite their life looking wonderful to outsiders looking in. They’re always searching for something more – something that, this time, will bring them lasting peace. Dex is a kind, caring soul, but often so busy caring for others they forget to care for themselves. They’re very relatable and easy to like. They’re also non-binary, something which is never questioned or used against them, and it’s lovely to see a world where people are just accepted for who they are.

Mosscap, their robot companion, is an intriguing contrast. Rather than a dreamer, Mosscap is a questioner: endlessly curious and fulfilled by their quest for knowledge. They’re comfortable with who they are and excited to be on an adventure to reconnect with humanity. Mosscap provides a lovely optimism when Dex’s introspection becomes too heavy, and an intriguing psychological contrast – something Chambers excels at in all her books.

The worldbuilding is simple but solid. Humanity advanced to a phase of AI and robots assisting in an incredibly advanced society – but as their intelligence and self-awareness increased, they rebelled at simply being treated as humanity’s slaves, instead of equals. Eventually, the robots left, leaving humanity to pick up the pieces and fend for themselves. These days, humans live simpler lives, with the age of robotics consigned to urban legend. Its a simple but peaceful world, absent of the conflict which drives so much of the sci-fi and fantasy genre.

It’s difficult to unpick exactly where this falls down for me compared to Chambers’ other works. I think the primary issue is Chambers books, lacking conflict as an interest point, need to fully convince the reader to immerse in their story in order to have any lasting impact, and this one just lacks the pull factor. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the characters, world, or plot, it just isn’t as engaging as it should be. For those looking for a calm, peaceful, introspective story it’s a pleasant and enjoyable read, but not one that lingers past the final page.

Overall, this is a solid novella with an intriguing premise and well-rounded characters, but it lacks the emotional punch of Chambers’ other work. Recommended for fans of human psychology, explorations of post-utopian society, and anyone looking for a quiet read – but maybe try one of her other works first.

Published by Tordotcom
Hardback & eBook: 13th July 2021

The sequel, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, published on 12th July 2022

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