Yearning. I’m fascinated, and one might argue, obsessed, with the idea, both in its aesthetic poetry, and in its philosophical oomph. And yet, maybe there is something to be said for the beauty, and the comfort of stillness. Of just being. So a robot argues to a monk in Becky Chamber’s delightful, lovely 2021 book, A Psalm for the Wild-Built.
Seriously, Chambers had me at “a monk and robot book.” Did you hear the one about a monk and a robot who go off into the woods together? It was decidedly not tinful. Awful joke aside, the monk is a tea monk at that! Yes, I’ve prepared spiced chai (with a splash of creamy vanilla almond milk) as I write this review, as it’s only fitting.
I’m obsessed with yearning for the same reason our main character, the nonbinary Sibling Dex (since she’s a nonbinary monk, she neither goes by Sister or Brother), is: I have a delightful life in the city, decided to alter course and become a tea monk in the outer villages, and that is delightful, too, and I have a family who loves me, and yet. That and yet is what plagues us humans. That feeling of not being enough. For others. For ourselves. For the world. For a lofty “purpose.” For the fulfillment of our yearning. And so, Dex sets out again into the wilderness to see if they can uncover the answer to their “and yet.”
In this world, robots became sentient. Conscious. Humans and robots, instead of waging a war, agreed to a Parting Promise. That’s already a subversive reading of the dystopia around the robot-human (or AI-human) relationship. It’s a welcome one.
The robots went off into the wilderness, and the humans had the rest of Panga, their version of Earth. It seems like Chambers drops enough hints that something, most likely the consequences of climate change, happened to what’s called the post-Transition period for humans, because in the world in which Dex lives, society is back to a pre-factory society, with ox-drawn wagons and such, as well as worshipping the gods even more fervently than before it would seem.
When Dex is in the wilderness, they encounter a robot, Splendid Speckled Mosscap, so named because robots name themselves after the first thing they see upon awakening. It is the first human-robot interaction in centuries, because the robots decided, What are those humans up to? How are they doing without our help? From there, Dex agrees to allow Mosscap to journey with them to ruins of a monastery hermitage.
That’s the thing. Ostensibly, the book presents itself as a classic journey story: Dex trying to find their inner self, thinking they’ll find it through this hermitage, and then stumbling upon a seven-foot robot, and then they’re journeying toward it together. But in reality, this is a meditative book about learning stillness. No, not a cynical, dystopian nihilism where nothing matters, but a beautiful, optimistic perspective. Mosscap essentially argues to Dex that their yearning is what is creating the “and yet” in them, that hole within them that they think needs to be filled by more yearning. It is a paradox of sorts. Instead, just be, like the ants, the water, the trees. Dex tries to counter that humans are more than our bits, we’re more than atoms. We’re at a stage of being more than merely needing to survive, hence the need for something more. But, perhaps Mosscap would argue, in so tethering ourselves distantly from our base parts, we’ve forgotten what it is to be? The journey isn’t too venture further out, but to come back home.
There is also an interesting concept Mosscap introduces of “remnants.” You see, the robots could have been immortal, for all intents and purposes. The originals, who “awoke” during the factory age, could have just kept fixing their parts. But they decided to pass them on to a new generation, so that the generation that came next was “wild-built.” The robots figured, nothing else on Panga is immortal, so why should we act in that way? So, Mosscap has the “remnants” of five generations of robot parts within him, including the original factory-made seal in his chest.
Maybe the remnants idea is an analog for the human experience as well? Dex emphasizes both how tired they are, and how tired everyone who comes to drink their tea and talk to them is. Maybe our slog is a remnant of our ancestors? That is, at one point, in seeking shelter (although the robot doesn’t actually need it!), Dex and Mosscap end up in a cave, and Dex curses themself for not being able to survive in a cave like their ancestors, and points out how little their sleep was in the cave. Our ancestors, because they were so focused on merely surviving moment to moment, sleep wasn’t possible in large quantities or a privilege. We’ve carried over the remnants, a very deep echo in our brain, of their lack of sleep! I jest a little, but it was a thought that occurred to me.
We know shelter and sleep are important and necessary to humans, but so, too, is food, and it goes beyond survival. Being the social animals that we are, I loved the scene in Dex’s wagon after first meeting Mosscap (where he interrupted their preparation of dinner), where they feel ill-at-ease with eating in front of him without sharing a plate. He obviously doesn’t need food, and yet, the social sharing of food with other humans (or, sentient beings) is so ingrained into the fabric of what it means to be human. That’s the sort of thing Anthony Bourdain made a career out of mining to such beautiful effect.
After I finished the book tonight, I was thinking, “a psalm.” What does psalm mean? The definition is, “a sacred song or hymn, in particular any of those contained in the biblical Book of Psalms and used in Christian and Jewish worship.” And that got me thinking: Another theme woven throughout the book is that Dex doesn’t hear the crickets anymore. Not in the city, and not in the villages. But as Dex and Mosscap are sitting in the hermitage, with Dex drinking tea prepared by Mosscap — such a lovely scene because after this time, nobody had ever made Dex tea! And even though his was gross, going back to the aforementioned point, they were gracious enough to drink it — and the last sentence of the book reads, “In the wilds outside, the sun set, and crickets began to sing.”
Beautifully done, Chambers. The crickets are presenting the psalm to us, reminding us of our roots in nature, in all of this (Dex even points out at one point that we think our civilizational manifestations are the reality, when in reality, we are the enclave within the wider net cast by nature), and that we are wild-built.
After all, as much as we like to think we are constituted of something that is distinctly not of nature, every part of us is of nature. (And yet.) Maybe we need to ignore the yearning imbued in the “and yet,” be still, and listen to the crickets sing.
If you can’t tell, I’m enamored by this book. It truly is like having a warm mug of tea while wrapped up in a blanket. I’d have to really think about it, but I would venture a guess that this is the best book I’ve ever read below 200 pages (it clocks in at 147 pages). You won’t regret picking this one up.