- The Good: Ennui and wanderlust in a post-factory society
- The Bad: Little to no action, scifi, mystery, suspense, or conflict
- The Literary: Asks and answers questions about humanity’s purpose
Monk Dex finds themself ready for a change and upends their life as a garden monk to study a new branch of the faith as a tea monk. They refuse an apprenticeship and head into the unknown, ready to learn by doing. They eventually get the hang of it, traveling from town to town, serving tea and listening to people’s problems. Just when life settles into a routine again, Dex makes a rash decision to take an unknown path into the wilderness, only to find a self-aware robot called Splendid Speckled Mosscap who wants to be friends.
In a future utopia, humans build a more sustainable world, separating their half of the world from the wild half, and the majority of people focus on spiritual or do-gooder work. Everyone is genuinely nice and giving, with an unironic hippie commune vibe, which rubs me as simplistic. But add in robots and I’m on board again. Several generations ago, robots gained sentience and parted ways with humanity, each respecting the others’ choice to live as they desired. Also, Dex is non-binary and instead of being referred to as brother or sister is called Sibling Dex, which is a nice touch.
It’s a neat idea to pair a monk with a robot. Most of the story follows their blossoming friendship as they discuss what humans are and what they do. I expected some conversations on religion and science, but they are mostly absent. At least the two characters are patient and considerate, as I would expect a monk and a robot to be with one another. Unfortunately, Dex doesn’t seem like a monk, nor does Splendid Speckled Mosscap seem like a robot. Specifically, Mosscap’s speech patterns and logic are nearly identical to Dex’s, and Mosscap even struggles with math. The best part of the story (robots!) is a letdown.
Dex is having an internal crisis of purpose, but other than that, stakes and conflict are absent. Their journey through the wilderness is ultimately… boring. There’s very little conflict or discovery, and instead the focus is about Dex being dissatisfied with their near perfect life. I don’t want to dismiss Dex’s feelings as “first world problems”, but their struggle feels unearned.
As a short piece of philosophical scifi, I can’t help but think about The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, written in 1973 by the amazing Ursula K. LeGuin. It won a Hugo Award in 1974. In short, a utopia in which everyone is terribly nice to each other and no one goes hungry and the world is perfect hinges upon one dark secret. But the greatness in that story is that it presents the situation and the reader must decide what is right and what is wrong. It’s a tale that lingers because the decision is put upon the reader to make the choice for themselves.
In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Mosscap essentially tells Dex that it’s okay to not have a purpose, to just be. Mosscap gives us the answer, which makes it difficult for me to call this a philosophical story. Nevermind that as a monk Dex shouldn’t need a robot to tell them that. Or that we suppose Dex takes that answer and just stops being unfulfilled, negating any nuanced conversations about mental illness. Maybe try telling someone with depression, “Have you tried not being sad?”
Perhaps I’m twisting the message Chambers intended, which is ultimately to be nice, comforting, and supportive of yourself and one another. I love books and movies that teach personal acceptance, friendship, and show you the child-like wonder of a forest or the wilderness. (Miyazaki, anyone?) And I like that Chambers reinvents the idea with an adult instead of a child. So if you need to hear that it’s going to be okay and that you are enough as you are, this story is for you.