A Review of Becky Chambers’ “A Psalm for the Wild-Built”
The Feel-Good Science-Fiction Novella of 2021
This is the age of being in the middle of a pandemic, and, roughly 18 months in, it has been tough on a lot of people. I’ve been okay, since I’m an introverted bookworm and have books to escape into, but I’ve watched friends really struggle with living their lives in the age of social distancing and not being able to see other friends in person. To that end, I have a balm for these people, the novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Released this past July, the book has already notched up one notable achievement: despite being only three months old as I write this, A Psalm for the Wild-Built has turned up on a recent Book Riot list of the Most Influential Sci-Fi Books of All Time. That’s a whopping accomplishment for a book so young. It speaks to how beautifully this novella is written and the optimistic things it has to say to people in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. I’m struck by that word: beautiful. It’s a word that I normally wouldn’t associate with any sort of novel, I don’t think, but that is, in essence, what A Psalm for the Wild-Built is. It is refreshing like a good cup of tea.
It’s hard to summarize this book because it’s so short — it may take you only a couple of hours to read, if that — but it involves a non-binary character named Sibling Dex, who is a “tea monk” on an Earth-like entity called Panga. What is a tea monk? It’s a religious figure who goes around to villages that neighbour the one city of Panga and who listens to people’s problems. After people are done venting, the tea monk will then serve the individual a cup of tea that’s meant to lessen the impact of the problems they’re facing. Now, Sibling Dex is very good at their job and is said to be the best tea monk in all of Panga by many. However, one day, they decide to venture off the beaten trail to visit an old hermitage and they run into a robot named Mosscap. The thing about robots is that people treat them as a myth: robots have gained their consciousness, have left the world of humans and haven’t been seen for hundreds of years. When Dex encounters Mosscap, the robot asks Dex a question: What do people need? Of course, there is no easy answer to that question, and the novella explores the philosophical nature of the human race’s need to have abundance.
One of the blurbs for this novella calls it “a soft hug of a book,” and I couldn’t agree more. This is a refreshing and exhilarating (and beautiful) piece on what it means to be alive, whether you’re a human or a robot. The writing has an easy-breezy style to it, and if you’re hurting and need a break, you’ll be in for a treat when you crack open the covers of this one. This is one optimistic and gentle read, and it is perfect for the times we live in. We need to get our heads wrapped around the worldview extoled in this novella because it is a kind, gentle vision. You may also have a craving to have a cup of tea as you read! There’s very little that I can say about this book that’s negative because it’s the kind of novella that doesn’t invite negative criticism. The only slight I have about this book is also something that works in its favour: it’s too short! (However, a sequel has been promised for next year.) Its length makes the book accessible, though, and if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to read a book because of the time investment involved, you have no excuse to pick this one up — you’ll be finished with it in no time flat!
There is, however, one criticism that A Psalm for the Wild-Built has earned, and it is a bit of a silly one. It concerns the use of the pronoun “they” to describe Dex as a non-binary character; some people found this move by the author to be confusing as they would read it as a plural pronoun and not a singular one. I’ve seen this been brought up in customer review after customer review on Amazon and Goodreads — and I think no malice or prejudice is intended by these comments. Still, if you’re unfamiliar with LGBTQ+ characters and you’re going to read this book, walk into it with the knowledge that just about every time you see the word “they,” it is referring to the character Dex and not two or more people (or a person and a robot) at the same time. If you keep “they” specifically reserved as a pronoun to name Dex, you’ll be okay and there will be little confusion.
If you want to read a novella that’s all about the feels — as in “feel goods” — then you should go online and get a copy of this book for your Kindle. (I see that a hardcover edition is currently available, but it seems expensive for such a short read.) This is an absolute must-have and must-read novella. When I was plowing through it, I was dealing with some stress related to work and the volunteer work that I do for my church, and I felt that stress just melting off me as I turned the pages of this one. I’m really in awe of Becky Chambers’ ability to make the reader feel comforted by her tale. But I should probably stop blathering here about how good this book is. You should simply go out and read it and judge for yourself — even if you hate science-fiction. This is one gentle, soothing salve of a read, and it offers a little something for everyone. Ultimately, this is a book about how we, even though we may be different, can serve each other and help each other out with our different perspectives. This is a book about the little guy who can make all the difference, and why merely existing is seemingly enough despite whatever goals you might have. These are all important things to hear in troubling times, which should be enough motivation to get you to a copy of this read. I can’t stress this enough: A Psalm for the Wild-Beast needs to be read. After all, if you believe the hype, it may just be one of the most influential books of all time, and that’s saying a lot for a book only published scant months ago.
Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built was published by Tor.com on July 13, 2021.
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