Erica’s Pick of the Week: A Psalm For The Wild-Built

The world is…rather a lot right now, isn’t it? Loud and tense and busy and hot and if you’re anything like me, you need a break. Not a big one. Just a little one. A chance to catch your breath, to escape somewhere quiet, even if only for a bit. A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the latest by scifi author Becky Chambers, is meant for times like this. (If you don’t believe me, just check out the dedication.)

Technically, this is a novella, coming in at just under 150 pages. It’s short enough to finish the whole thing in an evening, and so immersive you’ll be tempted to do exactly that.

Psalm is the story of Sibling Dex, a tea monk of Panga, who yearns for the wilderness. For the sound of crickets. For a grand purpose, whatever that may be. (A tea monk, by the way, is exactly what you might hope: someone who travels the country in a cozy, bike-powered camper, making tea for anyone who needs it.) On impulse, they set out for a long-abandoned hermitage, deep in the forest, far from the human-occupied part of Panga. 

Centuries ago, the robots who kept Panga running became sentient and left, eager to live without human interference or direction. Without their labor, Panga had to reinvent itself, and in a delightful twist rarely found in science fiction…they succeeded, evolving into a thriving peaceful world that feels both technologically advanced and charmingly rustic. The robots haven’t been heard from since; they’ve become the stuff of myths and fables.

Myths, that is, until a robot named Mosscap interrupts Dex’s dinner.

Mosscap has returned to check in on the humans and find out what they need. But what Dex wants is to head to the hermitage alone, not act as tour guide for a third-generation robot. Undeterred, Mosscap accompanies Dex back into the forest, convinced this will help him understand humankind. Along the way, Dex struggles with big questions — what is my true purpose? Why am I so dissatisfied, when I have everything I want? Rather than giving pat answers and simple solutions, Mosscap helps Dex uncover the deeper, more world-shifting questions beneath the surface — and that, it turns out, is what they truly needed.

And..that’s it. Monk and robot team up for a wilderness hike and slowly become friends.The planet is not at risk of catastrophe, aliens don’t invade, nothing explodes. It’s not really science fiction as much as it is pleasantly futuristic fiction. Mostly, it is a quiet journey in a vividly imagined world, full of thoughtful conversation, compassion, and the reassurance that it is okay to have more questions than answers. In what feels like a hard season, Psalm For The Wild-Built is a soft place to land — and a small book that will stay with you a long time.

Becky Chambers

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