Bite-size Books: A Psalm For The Wild-Built

Book cover: A Psalm for the Wild-Built - Becky ChambersGenerations past, the robots of Panga achieved sentience and were unhappy with their lot. When humanity gave them their freedom, they disappeared into the wilderness. Now, they are ready to make contact again – and a restless young tea monk will be asked the biggest question: what makes humanity happy? 

I guess it had to happen eventually: a Becky Chambers story that I just didn’t enjoy. Don’t get me wrong – its heart is in the right place; the world-building features a harmonious, ecologically sound future that I was curious to explore; the robot envoy is adorable (as are its descriptions of robot society) – and yet. For all its positives and that killer opening line (yes, yes, sometimes you do just need to get out of the city), A Psalm For The Wild-Built made me incandescently angry within a couple of chapters and never recovered my goodwill.

Consequently, this won’t be so much a review as an examination of why the novella rubbed me up the wrong way. Beware: navel-gazing and spoilers!

From ten thousand feet, the novella is a meandering interrogation of the concept of purpose in life. Dex the tea monk struggles to settle down: they have an affinity for plants and take pleasure in helping others, but they get restless. Once they have mastered their vocation, they get itchy feet. There’s no resistance to Dex’s desire to explore new things (on the contrary, they are fully supported in changing their focus from the gardens to tea) – but it eventually becomes evident that they harbour guilt that the status quo is never enough for them, in part because they are desperate to find their purpose.

The result is one of my favourite moments in the book, where Mosscap the robot steps through Dex’s logic and rejects it, insisting that one is allowed to just live and appreciate life in all its forms – including your own.

In other words, love yourself – and let yourself be enough.

The problem for me is the important distinction between self-love and selfishness – and I found Dex incredibly selfish.

It took a wrong turn for me early on, when Dex – having decided to become a tea monk – declines education in their new vocation, preferring to dive in at the deep end. They will self-teach, they declare.

It’s not immediately obvious from Dex’s first attempt that a tea monk is not a therapist – which is what initially made me angry. What tea monks do (or should do) is create a safe space for people who are physically or emotionally exhausted, angry or grieving or frustrated. Dex doesn’t know how to make a good cup of tea, let alone provide emotional or psychological support. Their first awkward encounter results in their client trying to reassure them when they freeze up in the face of her distress. So I stayed angry, finding Dex’s choice to self-teach both selfish and dangerous.

In Dex’s defence, their response to the disastrous encounter is to withdraw and practice tea blending. They have an expert knowledge of plants to draw on; they learn to create a welcoming environment and to roll with the feelings their clients bring with them. Fast forward two years, and they have built a Panga-wide reputation. I’m British enough to entertain the notion that sometimes what you need is to permission to stop engaging with your worries and just enjoy a good cup of tea. In theory, anyway. I’m not brilliant at it in practice, but that’s by the by. And Dex does make amazing tea.

I simmered down.

But Dex gets restless again. Fair enough; I’m currently trying to figure out what to do with my life too – I won’t judge Dex for it. However, I could – and did – judge Dex for deciding the thing to do is to go find an ancient hermitage in a set aside wilderness zone that has been ‘given back to Panga’. Humans are not quite banned from venturing into it, but they are strongly discouraged. Dex barely hesitates.

Unlike Dex, I have very strong feelings about respecting protected lands and not just jaunting into them because you fancy visiting a ruin you’ve only just heard about. It is at odds with the Pangan ideals we’ve heard about. It’s disrespectful and – to me – profoundly selfish. Not telling anyone they’re going – in spite of warnings that the wilderness is dangerous – is another kind of selfish; and carries a strong whiff of being well aware that this idea is one others would disapprove of.

It’s 2022 and I’m tired and grumpy. I have zero interest in – or tolerance for, apparently – narratives where selfish decisions are rewarded. Because there are never any consequences. A Psalm For The Wild-Built isn’t a cautionary tale. At any point where Dex’s decisions should rebound horribly on them, things just work out (with a bit of help from robot Mosscap). I think it’s meant to be a cute, uplifting depiction of how we muddle our way towards self-knowledge.

While Dex does eventually achieve some self-awareness – and is arguably the perfect person to ask ‘what makes humans happy’ (because that’s what Dex is trying to figure out too) – it was too little, too late for me. The final scene didn’t balance what had preceded it. Add in a narrative that is unsubtle in delivering homilies, and I often felt preached at as well as irritable (even when the spirit was one I could get behind).

I came to A Psalm For The Wild-Built needing balm for the soul; I left feeling a good deal grumpier than I arrived.

Maybe I just needed a good cup of tea.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.