Today has not gone to plan. A weather change is coming through, leaving me in a significant amount of pain. I need to start making dinner in an hour and the kitchen is still a disaster from yesterday. The dog is whining to be taken for a walk (again). And I’ve been trying to write this review all day; I need to get some words down so that it doesn’t become yet another task piled on tomorrow’s list. In the midst of all this chaos, A Psalm for the Wild-built by Becky Chambers is a book I can turn to for comfort.
Sibling Dex is a tea monk in service to the God of Small Comforts. They ride around the moon of Panga listening to the problems of others and dispensing tea and permission to take a quiet moment. They have worked very hard to be good at what they do and are recognised for their efforts. But even though they have a good life, they remain unsatisfied. On a whim, they leave the area of Panga settled by humans and strike out into the wilderness. There they encounter the first robot seen by humans in centuries.
A Psalm for the Wild-built is a novella that fits squarely in the genre of solarpunk. This is perhaps most obvious in the setting and worldbuilding. Like most solarpunk, it is set in a world that was heading towards ecological catastrophe but managed to pull back from the brink and develop more sustainable ways. Sibling Dex starts in the one city left on Panga. There’s greenery and solar panels everywhere, while the buildings are made of biodegradable materials. This society moved away from fossil fuels, so there’s nary a car in sight; Sibling Dex tours the countryside on a bike with an electric motor, towing a wooden caravan. While we don’t see a lot of the small towns Dex regularly visits, the impression is given that each of these has found their own unique way of living, adapted to their particular landscape. Chambers once again shows her mastery by giving us enough worldbuilding for the place to feel interesting and lived in, but not enough so that we feel like we have seen it all and thus leaving room for the rest of the series.
However, solarpunk is about more than just setting, it is about hope. A Psalm for the Wild-built hits this even before the story has started, with the dedication reading “For anybody who could use a break.” If that sounds relatable, so will many of the other problems you find in this story. They range from the mundane (like forgetting to put out a towel before getting in the shower) to the significant (messing up the first day at a new job) to the existential (feeling like you have no purpose in life). These are not high conflict problems but are still shown to be important and made Dex a very sympathetic character. Their journey through these problems shows them to be fallible and there’s comfort in knowing that if this person — who surely seems from the outside to have their life together and who offers needed respite to others — can face these things and find a way through, then perhaps I can too. They also show that we can all use a break from time to time.
Much of the solace and wisdom offered to Dex comes from the robot Mosscap. In her previous work, Chambers has shown a knack for making alien species seem at once both truly alien and yet also relatable. In A Psalm for the Wild-built, she uses that skill for her robot, allowing her to tackle head-on some common stereotypes regarding robots that frequently show up in science fiction. Via Dex’s misunderstandings, she’s able to point out how these stereotypes perhaps haven’t been thought through particularly well and instead offering a smarter and more compassionate alternative.
For a novella, it packs in a lot and I could spend several thousand more words discussing it (I haven’t even started on the intersection between Zen Buddhist and Indigenous perspectives). Instead, it suffices to say that A Psalm for the Wild-built is a smart and compassionate tale that will reward rereading. It’s a reminder to take a break that I highly recommend.