Monday, 18 September 2023

CBR15 Books 43-44: "A Psalm for the Wild-Built" and "A Prayer for the Crown-Shy" by Becky Chambers

Total page count: 320 pages
Rating, both stories: 4.5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: On the Road

On a moon (that seems quite like Earth in many respects) called Panga, people live peacefully together in harmonious small communities. There are remnants of a previous industrial age, and it's suggested that there was a near apocalypse way back when, but humanity improved and started thinking about what was better for their environment, possibly helped by the exodus of their robots. At some point, in the distant past, many generations ago, the robots that had been working in the factories and enabled humans to industrialise most everything, gained sentience and asked the humans for their freedom. This seems to have been managed without any major conflict - no Terminator-style rise of the machines on Panga. When offered an equal place in society as the humans themselves had, the robots instead chose to leave society entirely and go off into the untouched wilderness to observe it in all its glory.

Hence no one has seen any robots for a very, very long time, until one of our protagonists, Sibling Dex (they/them), a restless monk, encounters the other of our protagonists, the robot Mosscap, during his possibly inadvisable trek through the wilderness. Sibling Dex, initially a monk working in a monastic society in the city started yearning for the sound of crickets, something they certainly would never experience living and working where they were. So they retrained and became a tea monk, an individual who travels around to all the far-flung human settlements in a little wagon supplied with teas and tisanes and on their stops along the way offer up tea and a little oasis of calm to anyone who feels like joining them. Sibling Dex works diligently to make their various blends and brews and after some false starts, becomes a sympathetic and caring listener to those who wish to unburden themselves while enjoying a cup of tea in their presence. 

After some time of travelling to the various small communities, Sibling Dex is forced to acknowledge that not even becoming a tea monk has managed to soothe the unease inside them, and they still haven't been able to find any crickets to listen to. So they somewhat rashly decide to leave settled human society and venture into the wilderness in search of a rumoured ruined monastery, where there may still be crickets. Sibling Dex is rather taken aback at encountering Mosscap (full name Splendid Speckled Mosscap - the robots take their name from the first thing they see when they first wake up). Mosscap, on the other hand, is delighted to meet Sibling Dex. Being wild-built, a robot created by some of the descendants of the first robots to achieve sentience, Mosscap has proposed to venture into the human world to find out how humanity is now doing and discover what they need. Sibling Dex tries to explain that this is a very large task, which might even be impossible, considering how many different humans there are and how many dreams and wishes exist among them. 

After some back and forth, Mosscap decides to accompany Sibling Dex through the wilderness in search of crickets, while Sibling Dex agrees to be the robot's guide to humanity. On their continuing journey, they have many lovely and meaningful conversations and begin to become unlikely friends.

In A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, Sibling Dex and Mosscap's friendship and mutual understanding deepen, as Sibling Dex takes Mosscap around to villages and cities on Panga, so Mosscap can try to answer their question of what humans want. Among the places they visit is Sibling Dex's own home, and large and boisterous family. 

These lovely novellas, which came to be during the deeply depressing years of the Covid pandemic are relatively short (I wish I'd gotten to spend more time with Sibling Dex and Mosscap) and very gentle, philosophical reads. They are apparently classified as solarpunk - an optimistic vision of a more sustainable future, where there are close connections between nature and community. This certainly seems to fit the bill here. Everything seems carefully crafted, sustainable, and solar-powered, and people live with an awareness of and respect for nature, making sure not to make too serious a footprint while building their settlements. Considering the world we currently live in, it's a wonderful fantasy.

Chambers is a talented writer, whose characterisation and world-building in the previous novels I've read, are all excellent. These novellas are no different and like the people who sit by Sibling Dex's tea wagon for a spell, unburdening themselves about various troubles and receiving kind-hearted advice in return, these books felt like a balm for my soul, containing a lot of philosophy and musings on what makes us happy, what makes for a satisfying life and so forth, but also just cozy, low-peril plots that nevertheless entertained. Chambers has been nominated for a lot of awards for these stories and won the Hugo Award for Best Novella 2022 for A Psalm for the Wild-Built and the Locus Award for Best Novella 2022 for A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. 

I don't know if there are more novellas planned about Sibling Dex and Mosscap, since these seem to have come out in 2021 and 2022, and there has been nothing since. Checking her blog, it seems as if she's on hiatus from writing for an undisclosed period of time because of bereavement, so it may be a while before we see anything at all from her, not just about Monk and Robot

Judging the books by their covers: I don't really have much to say, except that these covers are so very lovely and give tiny hints of what the books contain. I especially like the windy roads on the cover of A Psalm for the Wild-Built and the lovely combination of colours on A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. There's something about the images that just feels soothing. They make me feel calmer and happier just looking at them. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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