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A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers

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A Psalm for the Wild Built

by Becky Chambers
July 13, 2021 · Tor.com
NovellaScience Fiction/Fantasy

TL;DR: if you like science fiction, comforting tales about comfort and care, and stories that are the literary version of warm late afternoon sunshine slanted through leafy branches on a day with perfect temperatures when all the biting insects are on vacation, you’ll like this.

Sibling Dex has chosen a new path in life, and with the support of their community (literal support – the community builds Dex build a trailer and provides everything needed) they become a tea monk, a roving administer of tea and comfort. In this world, set far into the future, humans exist on half of the planet, with the other half given over to wilderness. Hundreds of years prior, the robots humans had invented gained sentience, and wanted to leave and experience the world. Humans asked them to stay, but the robots said no, thanks, and headed off into the wilderness. Humans learned to get along without the robots, and they’ve become almost a legend. No one has seen one of them. Until Sibling Dex, struggling with many feelings, among them frustration and dissatisfaction, looks up from their campsite to meet Mosscap, a robot who walked out of the woods and asked, “What do you need?”

This is a quiet, thoughtful, short and meditative book. It was intriguing and easy to sink into, with a plot and pace that invited me to savor each scene. Much like Dex’s mobile tea shop, which is attached to a bicycle, the story doesn’t go fast. It begins with Dex deciding to change their life’s vocation, then jumps ahead a bit, and then a bit more until Mosscap arrives. Mosscap and Dex go on a road trip of sorts, but that’s the foundation to what the story is about. They have a destination, but Mosscap and Dex’s examination of their own journey while it happens is the heart of the narrative.

Describing what it’s about is probably the most challenging part because I think each reader who encounters this book will find a different element that speaks to them most. There are themes of technology and nature, friendship, agency, and autonomy. But the two major facets I found most resonant were the messages about purpose and caregiving.

Without spoiling too much, Dex, as a tea monk, is a caregiver, a person who arrives with a wagon full of tea, sets up shop, and welcomes people in different towns who need to rest, to talk, or be left alone. Tea is a vehicle for care and Dex’s mobile tea wagon is where people find respite and replenishment, repair and restoration, and Dex’s job is to provide those things. In chapter one, Dex observes that, “all of it could be boiled down to listen to people, give tea.”

Dex is meanwhile growing increasingly sad and upset by their own feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration that yet again, they aren’t content or happy, and they’re not sure what’s wrong with them.

Avast, mild spoiler ahoy

Basically, Dex has burnout, because Dex is pouring for others and not noticing that their own cup is running dry.

Mosscap has unlimited curiosity and self certainty and has existed apart from humans for so long that their way of thinking and seeing the world is entirely different from Dex’s. The story rests in Dex’s perspective, and Mosscap is just as fascinating through Dex’s observations as from Mosscap’s own dialogue. Their conversations as they traveled were the magical part of the story for me, especially when they discuss purpose and contentment. Explorations of wonder and comfort and caring for others and for ourselves are mixed into the narrative, and they culminate in a scene that’s so poignant, so beautifully unexpected that I was crying when I read it, to the point that folks around me might have been a little concerned. It’s achingly beautiful at times. And it’s so difficult to explain the details without potentially spoiling the discovery of those moments.

If I could wish for anything, it would be more. I appreciate the deliberate pace, the specificity of the scenes, and the focus of the narrative, and yet I also had the feeling when I reached the end of waking up from a really great dream that I didn’t want to be over yet (and also I really love sleep). I’m so pleased that this is the first of a series, and that there will be more of this world, because, wow, do I want more of it.

This book is the type of reading experience I’d recommend to anyone having a hard time, which might be a lot of people at this point. As I said, it’s a comforting story about comfort and care, as soothing to read as it is to think about, and so full of hope and wonder and potential discovery. I hope you’ll try it.

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