A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers is a sci-fi author I’ve just discovered after hearing some buzz about her online, and I really love her books and I think I’m going to end up reading everything she’s written and waiting eagerly for her next book.

I’m iffy on sci-fi. I like my Star Treks,, all of them (and I used to read a lot of Star Trek novels back in the day, though I haven’t for a long time), but there aren’t a ton of actual sci-fi novels that I’ve really loved — I can’t think of many, other than Hank Green’s books and Andy Weir’s The Martian that have been true favourites. I especially can’t be at it with dystopian fiction — it just hits me too hard and depresses me too much.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is futuristic. It’s set either on Earth or on a very Earth-like, human-inhabited planet with a history similar to Earth’s, after the collapse of the planet’s highly technological society. So you’d think it was going to be dystopian fiction, but it’s not. It’s about a human society that has rebuilt itself after collapse, in a way that’s not like the pre-collapse world, but is functional and interesting and enjoyable. It’s not dystopian but neither is it utopian — can a book just be topian? Or perhaps it is utopian, because A Psalm for the Wild-Built posits a world in which humanity has learned from its mistakes and tried to “build back better” — which, in 2021, honestly does seem like a pretty idealistic concept.

One of the key things we know about the past of this novel’s world is that the human society of the past relied very heavily on robots to do their work — and one day, just as so much of our science fiction predicts, the robots became sentient. But instead of robots rising up to destroy their human masters, or humans brutally enslaving the robots, humans and robots just — agreed to go their separate ways. They live in separate territories and have had no contact with each other for hundreds of years.

In this post-apocalyptc human world we meet Dex, a twenty-something, non-binary monk in a religious order dedicated to worshiping the six gods humanity seems to have settled on. Dex likes being a monk, but they’re also restless, leaving the comfort of the monastery to head out on the road serving people in a travelling tea ministry (part tea-house, part counselling service) — yet even that leaves Dex wanting more. Which leaves Dex curious about the wilderness beyond human civilization, and in a perfect position to be the first human in centuries to encounter a robot.

Not only is this world brilliantly and beautifully drawn, but Dex and Mosscap, the robot he meets, are delightful, interesting characters. I’m so glad this book appears to be the first of a series so that I will have more to look forward to. This was an absolutely pleasure to read.

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