Becky Chambers dedicates A Psalm for the Wild-Built to “anybody who could use a break,” and the novella is, on the whole, very restful. It’s not without conflict, but it is a break from the grim, from the horrible, and it shows people trying to be their best selves. That’s not easy, and one person’s best self may still conflict with another’s, so the story is not an endless round of happy happy joy joy.
Generations ago, the humans of Panga let their robots and artificial intelligences go. The robots had an Awakening, and departed for the wilderness. Here is how their speaker explained why they were declining an offer to join human society as free citizens: “All we have ever known is a life of human design, from our bodies to our work to the buildings we are housed in. We thank you for not keeping us here against our will, and we mean no disrespect to your offer, but it is our wish to leave your cities entirely, so that we may observe that which has no design—the untouched wilderness.” (p. 2) The humans of Panga did not fight to keep their robot servants; instead, they completely reordered their society to do without robotic help.
Chambers does not dwell on this remarkable approach. She sets her story many generations later, when robots have receded to somewhere between history and legend, and people live their lives on a scale adapted to sense and sustainability. Psalm follows Sibling Dex, a non-binary monk who begins the story by changing their vocation because they have an overwhelming urge to leave the City. Dex decides to become a tea monk, basically an itinerant food-truck owner with a side order of active listening. Tea monks are apparently common throughout Panga’s human settlements, moving from place to place, dispensing various teas, light fare, and advice as needed. As Chambers portrays them, there are no rivalries, no squabbles over routes or territory, no one-upmanship.
Dex’s first efforts fall flat, and their first customers wind up giving them comfort instead of the other way around. Abashed, Dex spends some months near their family’s farm perfecting new mixtures of teas. Within a couple of years, Dex is recognized as one of the best tea monks in all of Panga. They work a regular circuit in the course of each year, getting to know routes and settlements. Somewhere along the way, Dex’s restlessness strikes again, and they follow an urge to experience actual wilderness.
Predictably, things go wrong. As Dex should very well have known, had they given things due consideration. I don’t think Dex quite gets how much their approach to self-actualization causes work for other people, nor how much danger they put themselves in, even in Panga’s gentle society and apparently gentle environment.
Dex’s perambulations are interrupted by a robot, Splendid Speckled Mosscap by name, except that the robots’ lore tells them that humans like to shorten names so it says Dex may wish to address it simply as Mosscap. The robots name themselves for the first thing they notice when they wake up, hence the mushroom name. The first human-robot encounter in centuries is charmingly awkward, and the rest of the novella proceeds in much the same way. They try to understand each other and fill each other in on what has happened in the centuries since the robots went their own way. Mosscap is a descendant of factory-built robots, thus the “Wild-Built” in the novella’s title.
Dex is not about to let something like a momentous encounter divert them from their chosen path, and so they persuade Mosscap to come with them deeper into the wilderness, even though the route diverts Mosscap from its chosen path and puts them both into some physical danger. Dex is not the most self-aware of monks. Chambers uses the journey to show Dex and Mosscap getting to know each other better, and in particular to show robot consciousness at work. It’s enjoyably different from human consciousness.
The novel ends as gently as it began, the encounter not yet rippling out into the larger society on Panga. A Psalm for the Wild-Build is a balm for the well-read.