A monk and a robot go for a wander in the woods(ish)…
It’s been centuries since the robots of Earth gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.
One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.
But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.
They’re going to need to ask it a lot.
This novella was a great, pleasant surprise. It’s quite a small story, but one that takes a look at some pretty big questions. Its two main characters are fantastic, and is a breath of fresh air in today’s rather bleak times. I really enjoyed this.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built begins with Sibling Dex’s sudden shift in vocation. It’s a radical departure from what they were up to before, as they drop everything to become a wandering tea monk. The tea monk travels from settlement to settlement, sharing stories and hearing other’s woes; easing anxiety and helping with a myriad of different tea infusions. In a way, they are the travelling barmen, to whom all will unburden themselves. Dex doesn’t know what they’re doing, to begin with, and sets out to become the best at the job. It’s a steep learning curve, and Dex’s first encounters with patrons are a rude awakening.
Someone approached. Dex sat up straight. “Hello!” they said, a touch too congenially. “What’s on your mind today?” The someone was a woman carrying a workbag and looking like she hadn’t slept. “My cat died last night,” she said, right before bursting into tears. Dex realized with a stomach-souring thud that they were standing on the wrong side of the vast gulf between having read about doing a thing and doing the thing.
The story jumps forward a bit, to when Dex feels more established and confident in the role. They embark on a personal journey, off the beaten paths, and into the half of the moon that was given to the robots after they gained their freedom. Shortly after setting out on this journey, Splendid Speckled Mosscap walks into their life. It’s a startling moment for Dex, who is used to the robots keeping away from humans. Mosscap is an emissary, of sorts, for the robots, who have decided that maybe it’s time to see what the humans have been up to. What starts as an uneasy acceptance of Mosscap’s presence evolves into a quite tender, supportive friendship.
The robot returned to its chair, leaning forward and folding its hands together in a pose of pure earnestness. “I am here,” it said, “to see how humans have gotten along in our absence. As is outlined in the Parting Promise, we are—”
“Guaranteed complete freedom of travel in human territories, and rights equal to that of any Pangan citizen,” Dex said, the atrophied memory kicking in at last. “You were told you could come back any time, and that we wouldn’t be the ones to initiate contact. We’d leave you alone unless you wanted otherwise.”
“Precisely. And my kind would still very much like to be left alone. But we’re also curious. We know our leaving the factories was a great inconvenience to you, and we wanted to make sure you’d done all right. That society had progressed in a positive direction without us.”
As Dex and Mosscap get to know each other, we learn a lot about the history of this world. How the robots gained their independence, what they demanded (and received) from their human creators. We also learn about how their society (for want of a better word) functions, the quirks that keep them so very different to the humans, and also their position on life and death. We also learn how robots see themselves, how they keep themselves busy, now that they’re not stuck working for humans — turns out, they can be very, very curious about things: “It’s very hard to keep track of robots. We get so caught up in things.” They also have endless patience to indulge this curiosity (oh, to have that freedom!).
“You see, this is my problem. Most of my kind have a focus… they have an area of expertise, at least. Whereas I . . . I like everything. Everything is interesting. I know about a lot of things, but only a little in each regard.” Mosscap’s posture changed at this. They hunched a bit, lowered their gaze. “It’s not a very studious way to be.”
“I can think of a bunch of monks who’d disagree with you on that,” Dex said. “You study Bosh’s domain, it sounds like. In a very big, top-down kind of way. You’re a generalist. That’s a focus.”
Mosscap’s eyes widened. “Thank you, Sibling Dex,” it said after a moment. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
It’s very well-written story. Dex’s probing, sometimes clumsy or indelicate questions offer an opportunity to examine the ways in which we encounter and engage with cultures not our own — it also offers a lesson in how generous one can be, when helping others navigate certain new, uncomfortable, or difficult topics. Mosscap has a good sense of humour about Dex’s clumsy questions, and dismisses their fears easily and kindly (if also a bit playfully, at times).
The novella is packed with great moments. It’s an introspective story, without being self-indulgent. It’s a story of bridging cultural and racial divides. It’s also a tender story of friendship and support. It seems strange to highlight this, but it’s a very pleasant, gentle read — at a time when so very much SFF is rather gritty, often battle-/action-packed, it was a breath of fresh air to read a story that was predominantly made up of two characters talking about the world, life, religion, and just bonding on a human-robot level. It also certainly helps that Chambers is an excellent writer, and there are plenty of great passages that I could (but won’t) quote.
“What’s the purpose of a robot, Sibling Dex?” Mosscap tapped its chest; the sound echoed lightly. “What’s the purpose of me?”
“You’re here to learn about people.”
“That’s something I’m doing. That’s not my reason for being. When I am done with this, I will do other things. I do not have a purpose any more than a mouse or a slug or a thornbush does. Why do you have to have one in order to feel content?”
A very enjoyable read. Definitely recommended.