REVIEW: ‘A Psalm for the Wild-Built’ Is The Best of Robots Since Asimov

Reading Time: 3 minutes

a psalm for the wild-built - But Why Tho

I can’t remember exactly how I got turned on to Isaac Asimov’s Robots series, but it absolutely enthralled me for both its science fiction setting and social science-fiction and philosophy. A Psalm for the Wild-Built is an immaculate novella by Becky Chambers with audiobook narration by Emmett Grosland published by Tordotcom. Sibling Dex grew up in comfortable privilege, but they long to hear the sound of crickets beyond their city walls. Their time as a tea monk traveling Panga in a world post-departure of its robots to the wilderness forever is not enough to quench an endless desire to fulfill something greater.

I love the high-fantasy world of A Psalm for the Wild-Built. On the verdant moon of Panga, generations ago, humanity’s robotic workforce suddenly and inexplicably awakened to consciousness. The world was dying from human’s mistreatment of the world and in a turn of humility I could never believe would happen in our world, the people of Panga agreed to both accept robotkind as free equals to humankind, to allow them the freedom to depart the human settlements to abide by their own destinies, and to cordon human reach upon their continent to only 50 percent of the land. The other half of the world would remain unadulterated and protected from human meddling. This entire premise is so hard to believe, given the selfish nature of humans, yet, Chambers sells it perfectly in only a short few chapters.

Dex, the restless monk whom the story centers around, is the perfect character to tell this story. Their capacity for wonder and growth complements their anxiety and assumptive nature. When Dex meets and begins to travel with Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a robot that has been tasked with returning to human civilization and ascertaining “what they need” so the robots may provide it, they teeter back and forth between cautious questioning to avoid offense and inadvertent assumptions. The ebb and flow of their many conversations had me feeling myself squarely in Dex’s shoes. Encountering something only whispered about for generations has to be intimidating, even if it wasn’t seven feet tall, and the way they speak to one another completely encapsulates two entities with no conception of one another beyond hearsay.

What makes this relationship in A Psalm for the Wild-Built so successful is the way it works to make Dex and Mosscap equals. The first time this sunk in was during one of their first conversations. Dex asks Mosscap whether it has a gender, to which Mosscap replies “no,” and Dex says “me neither.” It’s not something that gets harped on or has any impact on their characters or plots, it’s just a moment of understanding and relationship building that worked unexpectedly perfectly. This moment was built upon later when Dex and Mosscap discuss pronouns and Mosscap explains that it is inanimate, despite its consciousness, and should therefore be referred to as “it.” This confounds Dex at first, who uses the pronouns “they/them,” but becomes the foundation for a depending understanding between one another.

Where Asimov’s robots are about how they are distinctly separate from humans, but perhaps not so different after all, Chambers’ robots take a subtly inverted approach. They are distinctly not so different from humans, but nonetheless, quite separate. This difference is profound as the book delves into its philosophy. It brings up questions about the purpose for being and value. I’m absolutely entranced by the quote “We don’t have to fall into the same category to be of equal value.”

Grosland’s narration is enjoyable, particularly Mosscap’s gleeful voice, although the recording feels like it’s roughly cut in places where Grosland’s tone suddenly shifts or their voice deepens noticeably as if the segment is from a different recording session. It’s only momentarily distracting though, and could perhaps have been a matter of attempting to distinguish the narrative voice from that of Dex.

Through Dex and Mosscap’s burgeoning relationship and mutual understanding, we experience perhaps the best use of robots in fiction as reflections upon our own humanity and civilization since Asimov himself.  A Psalm for the Wild-Built is utterly profound yet simple, placid, and a joy to read.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is available now wherever books are sold.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built
5

TL;DR

Through Dex and Mosscap’s burgeoning relationship and mutual understanding, we experience perhaps the best use of robots in fiction as reflections upon our own humanity and civilization since Asimov himself.  A Psalm for the Wild-Built is utterly profound yet simple, placid, and a joy to read.