I wasn’t initially a fan of Chambers, but after Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, I’ve come to like each of her books more and more. This one was no exception. Psalm is a novella and the start of a science fiction series about man and robot. As a novella, there wasn’t as much content as I would have liked, but I’m looking forward to reading more. Psalm is set in a future where robots have established sentience and separated from human beings. There has been no human/robot interaction since, and humans now live a much simpler, technology-free life. At some point it was decided that humans could occupy only half the planet, and the rest had to be left to the wild.
The opening neatly explains the history of robot independence while also cataloguing the different gods that are now worshipped, through a debate between whether robot conciousness is due to Chal, the God of Constructs, or Bosh, the God of the Cycle, or Samafar, the God of Mysteries. Chambers explains there are two parent gods and a number of child gods.
Sibling Dex is a monk who follows Allallae, the God of Small Comforts. Dex decides one day to leave the monastery to go into tea service, which means driving from village to village in a wagon, setting out tea, and listening to people’s worries. They (Dex is nonbinary) have an urge to hear the sound of crickets.
When they looked up at the skyscrapers, they no longer marveled at their height but despaired at their density – endless stacks of humanity, packed in so close that the vines that covered their engineered casein frames could lock tendrils with each other… Dex wanted to inhabit a place that spread not up but out.A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
In this short work, Chambers raises a number of interesting issues about identity, equality, friendship, and purpose. When Dex meets a robot for the first time, they struggle with how to treat it (is it an “it”?) and they must wrestle with their discomfort about human’s mistreatment of robots in factories many years ago.
I really enjoyed the world that Chambers is creating in this new series. It’s got a quieter, more sensory pace than most science fiction, which may be expected in a post-technology future. Her focus is more on philosophical issues, like man’s relationship to machines and to nature. The dialogue is very well-written and while the tone is introspective, Chambers also writes with a sense of humor.
Like Chambers’ other books, I found myself thinking this would strongly appeal to Star Trek fans, because her writing really deals with social and political issues more than technological ones. And while her books are set in the future, they feel very relevant today.
I would have liked more worldbuilding and I expect that will come with future novels in the series (at least I hope they will be novels rather than novellas). There’s a lot about this post-robot world that could use more explaining, including how humans are living and working beyond Dex’s monastery and tea service. The novella’s weakness was that Dex’s motivations were unclear, from the abrupt decision to go into tea service to a later decision to go a different route. Dex seems to make huge, impulsive, and clearly unwise decisions with little or no rationale. Since we don’t learn very much about the character’s past, I wanted to better understand the reasons for these decisions. On the other hand, Dex is a character who gets what he wants, and then can’t understand why he isn’t happy. I can identify with that.
You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to just exist in this world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
I thought it was excellent and I’m looking forward to the next book, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy.
Note: I received an advanced copy of this novella from NetGalley. It will be published July 13, 2021 by Macmillan-Tor.