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Summary and review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

A Psalm for the Wild-Built
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A Psalm for the Wild-Built

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a true balm for the soul, as comforting and wholesome as any of the personalized tea blends imagined and served with love by Dex, the story's main character.

URL: https://amzn.to/3giY0En

Author: Becky Chambers

Editor's Rating:
4.5
A Psalm for the Wild-Built book

"Old people, young people. Everybody needed a cup of tea sometimes. Just an hour or two to sit and do something nice, and then they could get back to whatever it was."

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Book review of A Psalm for the Wild-Built

This book opens with a dedication to anyone who could do with a break. Dang, does this book deliver.

The first book in Becky Chamber's Monk and Robot series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built is one of the most popular books at the forefront of hopepunk, a genre of optimistic and utopian sci-fi that's grounded in human kindness, sustainability, and care for nature.

The result is a true balm for the soul, as comforting and wholesome as any of the personalized tea blends conjured and served with love by Dex, a tea monk at the centre of this story.

At the heart of the book are these questions: What do humans really want? What does a meaningful life look like? And what about meaningful work?

In this heartwarming story, we enter a utopian future years after the end of the Factory Age, when robots put down their tools and gave up their roles as human servants to disappear into the untouched wilderness. That's where they've remained, far from human life... until a robot suddenly turns up at a tea monk's door.

This book got me thinking more about my work and how I live than most other books I've read in the last year, which, considering how much I read, is saying something.

Is A Psalm for the Wild-Built worth a read?

There's something so therapeutic about Becky Chambers' writing. As well as anyone who wants a break, A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the perfect book for anyone feeling lost, directionless, or in need of a big change in life. It's also full of slice-of-life vibes, if you love that in your reading material.

Synopsis of A Psalm for the Wild-Built

“If we want change, or good fortune, or solace, we have to create it for ourselves.”

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, we enter a utopian future years after the end of the Factory Age, when robots put down their tools and gave up their roles as human servants to disappear into the untouched wilderness. That's where they've remained, far from human life.

In Panga's main city, we meet Sibling Dex: a non-binary twenty-nine-year-old gardener who has no idea what they want to do with their life. But they do know one thing for sure, that despite the beauty and livability of a metropolis, "sometimes, a person reaches a point in their life when it becomes absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the city".

And so Sibling Dex leaves their job to become a tea monk, skipping the usual apprenticeship route and opting to learn everything themselves. After a rocky start, Sibling Dex is adored by their customers. Dex listens to their problems, and then serves the perfect cup of tea.

Despite becoming perhaps the best tea monk in Panga, Sibling Dex still feels that this isn't it. There's something missing in life. They yearn for wildness and the sound of crickets. And so they cycle their wagon further into the wilderness than definitely advised and take in the freedom and beauty of their new surroundings.

That is, until they're interrupted by a robot, Mosscap, who has left the wilderness to ask one simple question. What do humans want?It turns out that this is actually an incredibly difficult question, and Dex feels like they absolutely cannot answer it.

What follows is a heartwarming and soul-searching journey of adventure deep into the wild to reach an abandoned hermitage. It's here that Dex and Mosscap find a deeper bond than they could have imagined, learning more about each other, themselves, and what really leads to a meaningful life than ever would have been possible alone.

An in-depth summary of A Psalm for the Wild-Built (spoilers!)

Foreword

The foreword of A Psalm for the Wild-Built throws you into the world of Becky Chamber's Monk and Robot series with an extract from a fictional work by a fictional Brother Gil, called From the Brink: A Spiritual Retrospective on the Factory Age and the Early Transition Era.

The main gist of the foreword is that it introduces us to the different spiritual worldviews in this universe, focused here on the question of what godly domain robot consciousness belongs to.

There are many unfamiliar terms here (Ecologians, Cosmites, Charismists) and it can be a little hard to follow. But this is just for three pages! You don't need to take in and remember everything.

The main things we learn: the robots left the factories and departed for the wilderness during a time called the Awakening, robots declined the invitation to join human society as free citizens, and the Factory Age hasn't been remembered fondly,

We read a quote from the robot's chosen speaker, Floor-AB #921: "we mean no disrespect to your offer, but it is our wish to leave your cities entirely, so that we may observe that which has no design–the untouched wilderness."

Chapter 1: A Change in Vocation

"Sometimes, a person reaches a point in their life when it becomes absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the city", begins Chapter 1. Hear, hear.

We're introduced to the main character, Sibling Dex. Dex has spent their entire adult life in a city: Panga's only City, which they describe as a good city. It's described as beautifully lush and well-designed:

"The City was a healthy place, a thriving place. A never-ending harmony of making, doing, growing, trying, laughing, running, living."

However, Sibling Dex is tired of it. (Note that Dex is referred to as they/them throughout the entire book.) Dex wants to inhabit a place "that spread not up but out". In particular, they yearn for cricket song, which they've never heard but now notice its absence everywhere.

Dex walks to the Keeper's Office of Meadow Den, where they've lived for nine years and worked as a gardener, to share that they're changing their vocation to a tea monk, going to the villages to do tea service. They explain that they don't want to do an apprenticeship or formal study, but rather figure it out themselves as they go.

Dex packs a bag with clothes, sundries, and a small crate with seeds and cuttings, and walks out of Meadow Den towards a wagon that's waiting for them near the City's edge. This wagon is Dex's new home-on-a bike, and it contains freshwater and greywater tanks, a pop-out kitchen and camp shower, and a bed on a second deck.

The exterior is decorated with a mural of the Sacred Six's symbols, alongside "a paraphrased snippet from the Insights", which we're told any Pangan would understand: Find the strength to do both.

We then learn what a tea monk does: people come up to their wagon with their problems and leave with a freshly-brewed cup of tea, personalized to their exact needs and worries at that moment.

As a baby step before diving in, Dex sets up their first service in the Sparks, an edge district of the City. They set up a folding table, an assortment of mugs, and a colossal electric kettle.

The set-up looks a bit plain, and Dex knows that it's not quite like the tea parlor at home, with fragrant herbs and twinkling solar-powered lanterns. Hours later, their first customer arrives and Dex scrambles to remember the advice they've read about being a tea monk, bumbling through this first tea service. When the customer leaves, they seem disappointed.

Dex knows they could give up now and head back to Meadow Den, but how very stupid they'd look. As they set off on their wagon to the next village, they consider heading down the road to Haydale, where their family lives and everything would be familiar. But now lost and still figuring things out at the age of twenty-nine, how very stupid they'd look there, too.

Dex ignores the road to Haydale and instead steers their wagon towards the next village, Little Creek. Dex heads to the busy marketplace until they find a booth stuffed with seedlings of herbs and buys one of each. They ask the herb farmer for advice on where to buy kitchen and garden supplies, and then find a clearing to park their wagon.

For three months, this is where Dex stays, acquiring more plants and turning the lower deck of their wagon into a laboratory full of planters, sunlamps, and tea blend experiments.

Dex shares that "they frequently asked themself what it was they were doing. They never truly got a handle on that. They kept doing it all the same."

Chapter 2: The Best Tea Monk in Panga

There's been a two-year jump, and Sibling Dex now knows the quiet highways between Panga's villages like the back of their hand. During this time, Dex has learned a huge amount about their trade and infuses each service with more love and creativity. One of their customers joyfully calls her the best tea monk in Panga.

Dex realises they are about as successful as could be, but they still feel like something is missing. They wake up feeling like they haven't slept and can't understand why. They should feel happy and healthy. Why isn't it enough? What's wrong with me? Dex wonders.

There is one thing they can pinpoint that's missing... the sound of crickets. They look them up one day, and learn that crickets are extinct in most of Panga. However, they find some old recordings from a hermitage in Hart's Brow, a place they're vaguely familiar with. Dex wonders if the crickets are still there... and if they could go and find out.

Dex knows this is a stupid idea, but it keeps niggling at them, despite the warnings from their computer that the area is outside of human settlement areas and in protected wilderness. Travel is strongly discouraged because of unpredictable wildlife and dangerous road and environmental conditions.

And yet, as Dex cycles towards Hammerstrike for their scheduled tea service, they realise how familiar and repetitive everything will be when they get there. The wilderness, on the other hand, would be quiet and isolated, with the wagon offering everything they needed...

Dex sends a message to Hammerstrike letting them know that they won't be there. Then they turn the wagon around and head for a new road. They have no idea what they're doing, but they can barely contain their nervous excitement.

Along the way, the road becomes trickier to navigate. As evening falls, they find a perfect campsite and set up for the evening, preparing a delicious dinner of vegetables and beans and heading for the shower while it simmers.

As they finish their shower and reach for their towel, they can't find the towel but encounter something that really shouldn't be there: a seven-foot-tall, metal-plated, boxy-headed robot striding briskly out of the woods.

Terrified and naked, Dex freezes as the robot greets them. "My name is Mosscap", it shares, "What do you need, and how might I help?"

Chapter 3: Splendid Speckled Mosscap

Dex tries to process the robot standing in front of them long enough for the robot to ask if it's done something wrong. But soon enough, Dex and Mosscap (short for Splendid Speckled Mosscap) begin to communicate and get to know one another.

Dex eventually learns why Mosscap has exited the wilderness after so long: to check in and see how humans are doing.

"We know our leaving the factories was a great inconvenience to you, and we wanted to make sure you'd done all right. That society had progressed in a positive direction without us."

Planning to travel from town to town, Mosscap wants to answer this question: "What do humans need?"

Dex explains that they are a very bad choice of person to help them with this. They have no idea what the answer is, and explain that it changes from person to person and minute to minute.

Dex explains that they're also busy and can't help Mosscap with this; instead, they want to head further into the wilderness to reach the hermitage. Mosscap discourages them when he hears this, explaining that the wilderness is very different from the highways and that it's dangerous for a human.

Eventually, Mosscap offers to accompany Dex to the hermitage, getting them there safely and finding out more about human customers on the way. Although Dex maintains that they're a terrible person to teach Mosscap this, they start to mull it over... and then come face-to-face with a large bramble bear.

They freeze, escape into the wagon, and the bear leaves after sniffing around a bit. More than ever, Dex knows they are definitely not in the City anymore.

Chapter 4: An Object, And an Animal

They set off the next morning, Dex huffing and puffing as they cycle the wagon up the miserably steep old road. Mosscap walks alongside the wagon and offers to help, but Dex quickly disagrees: after the Factory Age, they absolutely do not want to make robots do their work for them again.

Talking as they make their way, Dex learns more about the robots. Mosscap explains that they are not networked or connected via their hardware, and maintain their own individual thoughts. They have no need for food, rest, or shelter, so settlements serve them no purpose.

What the robots do have are meeting places, including glades and mountaintops, where they meet every two hundred days and then go on their way again. Some are single-minded and are content to watch a sapling grow from seed, while others prefer to travel in groups. Mosscap also explains that they leave messages in caches, or weatherproof boxes, which they can sense the presence of.

At a large gathering, the robots decided to go and see what the humans were up to, and Mosscap was the first to volunteer for this.

Dex says that Mosscap is nothing like they expected, which Mosscap is slightly offended by. They explain: "I am made of metal and numbers; you are made of water and genes. But we are each something more than that."

As their conversation develops, Mosscap emphasises that there's plenty of variation between humans and other creatures, and just as much variation between robots.

Chapter 5: Remnants

The crumbling road is starting to take its toll on Dex's wagon, and at the start of this chapter we find them patching up the water tank with tape. They manage a temporary fix, but they've lost a lot of water and will need to refill it somehow.

Mosscap remembers there's a creek not far away, which seems like the best solution. However, Dex insists on carrying the water tank instead of Mosscap... although it turns out that they can't.

Mosscap argues: "If you had a friend who was taller than you, and you couldn't reach something, would you let that friend help?" Dex says that they would, but adds that this is different because their friends aren't robots.

"So, you see me as more person than object, even though that's very, very wrong, but you can't see me as a friend, even though I'd like to be?" replies Mosscap, adding: "if you don't want to infringe upon my agency, let me have agency. I want to carry the tank."

So Mosscap carries the tank, Dex cautiously following behind as they leave the trail and have to step on the wildlife below: something which Dex has been brought up to think is absolutely not okay.

However, Mosscap explains that sometimes damage is unavoidable. Dex isn't making a habit of destroying nature, just heading off on one short walk. They continue, Dex realising that walking through uncut wilderness is difficult.

Taking careful steps, they finally reach the creek and refill the tank, although they can't help but feel uneasy at the bugs and algae floating in the water. They know that this is where water comes from, but it just seems so... natural.

Mosscap asks Dex to leave the tank and follow them, and they soon reach an abandoned beverage bottling plant that is now in a state of ruin. Dex had never stood inside a factory. Mosscap feels unsettled, recalling a "remnant", a feeling from a past life (or a past combination of parts), that they don't like it there.

Mosscap explains that they never actually worked in a factory all that time ago, but that they're "wild-built". Their components are from factory robots, but these broke down long ago and had their parts harvested and reworked into new individuals. When they broke down, their parts were again harvested, refurbished, and used to build new individuals. Mosscap is part of the fifth build.

Dex wonders why they don't just fix the parts rather than create new combinations, but Mosscap explains that the robots decided that immortality wasn't desirable: "nothing else in the world behaves that way. Everything else breaks down and is made into other things."

Dex shares that they find it pretty in the factory, despite the ruins; spiders weaving webs and vines stretching slowly between walls. Mosscap sums it up beautifully: "I think there's something beautiful about being lucky enough to witness a thing on its way out."

Chapter 6: Grass Hen with Wilted Greens and Caramelized Onion

Mosscap continues to ask Dex countless questions about human customs and watches everything they do with rapt attention (in a rather irritating way). Mosscap helps Dex with cooking, but when they ask Mosscap to pick some wild mountain thyme, they hesitate: "I've never harvested a living thing for food before."

Dex does it instead. When they sit down to eat, they realise how uncomfortable they are that Mosscap isn't eating too... even though Mosscap is incapable of eating. Dex solves this problem by giving Mosscap a plate with half their food and asking "are you going to eat that?" once they finish their own.

This makes Dex feel much better, and they explain this human custom of eating together and sharing food.

Chapter 7: The Wild

This chapter starts with the observation that "It's difficult for anyone born and raised in human infrastructure to truly internalize the fact that your view of the world is backward."

Even if we know that we live in a natural world that existed before us and will continue long after, we still struggle to realise that nature is the default, not human civilization.

Dex and Mosscap reach what appears to be the end of the road, with only wilderness ahead. The wagon couldn't possibly navigate it. Dex is disappointed and angry at the feeling that they can't go any further.

Mosscap apologises, but Dex starts packing a backpack with essentials. Once again, Mosscap explains that they shouldn't do this: it's too dangerous and unpredictable. But Dex retorts that Mosscap doesn't even need to come with them; they were going to part ways after the hermitage anyway.

When Mosscap realises that Dex is going, they agree to accompany them further. The way is hard going, and although Dex thought themselves in good shape, their muscles object. Their palms and forearms are soon scraped and bloody, but Dex doesn't care.

When it begins to rain, Mosscap suggests they find shelter, but Dex perseveres. "Why are you here, Sibling Dex" asks Mosscap. "Did something happen to you?" "Did someone drive you away?"

Dex objects to all of these questions, but it gets to them just as they lose their grip and fall, only to be caught and comforted by Mosscap. "I don't know what I'm doing here. I don't know" cries Dex.

As the rain falls harder, Dex lets the robot help them up and guide them to a cave for the night. Inside, Dex ponders that children's stories had lied about caves... they're not cozy and adventurous nooks, but rather full of bad smells and animal bones and are incredibly uncomfortable.

However, Dex peels off their wet clothes, lays them flat to dry, and rests, talking to Mosscap. They ponder again why they can be unsatisfied when they have so much in life:

"I have it so good. So absurdly, improbably good. I didn't do anything to deserve it, but I have it. I'm healthy, I've never gone hungry. And yes, to answer your question, I'm–I'm loved. I lived in a beautiful place, did meaningful work."

As they explain, the world they live in is nothing like the world that Mosscap's ancestors lived in. Although it's not perfect, they've fixed so much and it's a good world, a beautiful world in which they've struck a good balance.

And yet despite switching their vocation and working really hard to be extremely good at something, it still feels like something's missing. Dex explains how they tried talking to friends, family, and doctors, but no one got it. So they just stopped talking about it.

They read books, went to places that used to inspire them, listened to music, and looked after their body, and it still wasn't enough.

"What is wrong with me that I can have everything I could ever want and have ever asked for and still wake up in the morning feeling like every day is a slog?" asks Dex.

They explain that the crazy idea of heading on a new road towards the wilderness was the first idea in forever that made them feel excited and awake. Mosscap understands: "You followed a road you hadn't seen."

Mosscap shrugs helplessly, then answers, "How am I supposed to answer the question of what humans need if I can't even determine what one human needs?" But Dex is adamant that it's not on them, adding that Mosscap just needs to get down to the villages and find better people to speak to.

Dex resolves to keep going, then they'll figure out what to do afterwards. Before bed, the human and robot hold hands, the lights on Mosscaps fingertips making Dex's skin glow red.

Chapter 8: The Summer Bear

Upon waking and leaving the cave, the world looks new and magnificent after the rain. Mosscap tells Dex that the hermitage is only a few hours away, and asks whether they still want to finish this. Dex does.

They find a human-made path, which Dex welcomes with profound gratitude after the underfoot conditions of the last day and a half. "Oh my", says Mosscap when they see the hermitage ahead of them.

It was clearly a beautiful building once, though now in a state of decay. Dex imagines what it would have looked like once, and they wander the courtyard and rooms, uncovering relics of past humans who stayed there: cozy living spaces, beds, bathrooms, linens, and incense burners.

Dex remembers a monastery they visited as a kid where they met a cool tea monk with tattoos all over her arms and wearing plants as brooches and earrings: "She talked to me about what flavors I liked, and she busted out all the pots and jars and spice bottles, like we do, and gods, it was magic."

In this world, tea means rest, rebalancing, and therapy:

"Old people, young people. Everybody needed a cup of tea sometimes. Just an hour or two to sit and do something nice, and then they could get back to whatever it was."

Mosscap remembers the quote on the side of the wagon: "Find the strength to do both". Dex explains that at this shrine they learned:

"a cup of tea may not be the most important thing in the world–or a steam bath, or a pretty garden. They're so superfluous in the grand scheme of things. But the people who did actually important work–building, feeding, teaching, healing–they all came to the shrine. It was the little nudge that helped important things get done."

This is what Dex wanted to do in their own work, too. But if this doesn't feel like enough, what is?

Mosscap explains that while Dex's religion puts a lot of emphasis on purpose and contribution, this doesn't have to be everything. Consciousness alone can be exhilarating. And it can be okay to be utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Dex is suddenly very tired, and folds their jacket into a pillow and falls asleep. When they awake with a start, the air smells of smoke. They find Mosscap by the fire pit, which is roaring with flames. Mosscap had learned how to make a fire from the monastery library (the first book they have ever read) and is now boiling water for tea.

Dex sits, cross-legged, and Mosscap does the same. Dex shares their problems and Mosscap listens.

"'I'm tired,' Dex said softly. My work doesn't satisfy me like it used to, and I don't know why. I was so sick of it that I did a stupid, dangerous thing, and now that I've done it, I don't know what to do next. [...] I'm scared, and I'm lost, and I don't know what to do."

Mosscap pours Dex a cup of mountain thyme tea, and while it's disgusting, it's still the nicest cup of tea they've ever had. Dex talks about the other communities and villages that they're excited for Mosscap to meet, and suggests that they'll join the robot on their way. Mosscap's gaze flows brighter and brighter.

Then, Dex asks for another cup of tea as the sun sets and the crickets begin to sing in the wilds outside.

Books like A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Although there's sure to be a flurry of Becky Chambers-inspired writers in the next few years, no one really writes quite like she does.

For more books like A Psalm for the Wild-Built, you can't go wrong with other books by Becky Chambers. The sequel, A Prayer for the Crown Shy, was published in 2022 and is perfect to read next.

You can also escape into Becky Chamber's Wayfarers series, beginning with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Book excerpt

Read the first pages of A Psalm for the Wild-Built, or see the book on Amazon.

 
 

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