Tor Books; 2021
It’s easy to string together a dystopian futurescape, complete with collapsing climate, authoritarian and disparate political enemies, and technology that crushes us with its stifling uniformity. The inspiration is all around us, the logical conclusion of the visible paths forward. What’s hard is to think bigger and beyond: to envision a way that it could be different, to inhabit possibilities, and to even rediscover what the struggle of life would be when the obvious causes of our ills have been defeated.
This is the task Becky Chambers takes up in her new novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, a new series from Tor Books called “Monk and Robot.” The premise brings us centuries in the future and past a few key lessons in the course of human technology and social relationships. Humanity has built up robots so completely that it has become clear that they are sentient and deserving of legal personhood, and their foundational role in our chain of production is one that robs them of their freedom. We offer them an arrangement whereby they will be granted citizenship and can integrate into our society just as any biologically born person. They are gracious, yet decline, saying they need to learn more about the natural world first. They then head deep into the wilderness, never to be seen again except for the stray sightings with little more credibility than accounts of Bigfoot.
Society progresses forward and uses the robot contradiction as a guiding factor, avoiding autonomously run technologies for fear that we would again sacrifice our moral center by forcing creatures into servitude. But this is fine as we head into a post-machine future, one that, while still relying on complex technologies, has scaled down certain systems to keep a conscious ecological and social balance. We meet the person who will become our main character: a non-binary monk of a pagan religion named Sibling Dex, who has become dissatisfied with their city life and wants to become a “tea monk.” These are one part therapist, one part tea bartender that hoof carts around, inviting people to come in and grab a cup of tea and share their problems. While Dex is in over their head to start with (they forgot, for example, that people usually need chairs to sit in when they sip tea), they begin a procession through the various agricultural townships that make up the complicated patchwork of this world called Panga.
As they are closing up shop one day they are approached by a robot, which would be akin to us being approached by Lochness monster in the moments before leaving work. This robot, named Mosscap, is from generations into the new wild robot society, rebuilt from the parts of older robots and raised entirely free from human culture. Mosscap has come to live up to the promise the robots made before heading into the forest: they would check back in due time and ask the humans what they need. So . . . what do humans need? How can they help?
This ends up being the central conversation of A Psalm for the Wild-Built, a meditation on the search for what we really need. What Chambers achieves is to strip away the obvious answers: sustainability, the end to tyrannical social systems, the totally visible. Instead, having the premise be a more hopeful and positive future, what we have left is the actual longing of humans. What do we want?
Chambers’ book is the best recent example of a newly emerging genre called SolarPunk, a sort of complex revival of earlier generations of utopian speculative fiction. Alongside political, aesthetic, architectural, and other manifestations, SolarPunk fiction imagines a future with optimistic synchronicity. Environmental sustainability is fused from a balance of the archaic and the futurist, agrarian and urban, traditionalism and cosmopolitanism. The genre does emerge out of earlier examples of radical re-imaginings, like Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing. Politically, we are seeing echoes of this in the revival of revolutionary approaches to localism, such as the growth of neighborhood councils, mutual aid networks, and “autonomous zones,” the experiment still underway in Rojava on the Syrian border (amongst many other examples internationally), or the renewed popularity of theorists like Murray Bookchin. Maybe we don’t need pessimism about our future, and perhaps technology can be fused with a look to our spiritual and cultural foundations. Hope is not naivete.
“The world we made out there, Mosscap it’s — it’s nothing like what your originals left. It’s a good world, a beautiful world. It’s not perfect, but we’ve fixed so much. We made a good place, struck a good balance. And yet every fucking day in the City, I woke up hollow,” says Dex, trying to unpack the mystery of their emptiness. “What is wrong with me that I can have everything I could ever want and have ever asked for and still wake up in the morning feeling like every day is a slog?”
The format of the book is largely in the Platonic dialogue between Mosscap and Dex, each trying to come to terms with the unchecked assumptions of the other. Dex searches through their life for some kind of purpose, yet Mosscap questions why this would be necessary, why being alive, start to finish, isn’t enough. Dex’s world is built on trying to respect the systems of the natural world, yet are still a retreat from it, while the pinnacle of human-built civilizations, robots, now existing autonomously, head into the wildness. When they come back together there is just an open question: what do we do next? Have we fixed enough of human life that we can rest? Can we finally be without purpose? Why then this crushing feeling?
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the beginning of a novella series, where the monk and the robot will head from the rural to the urban, and bring this question to the cities. There is a kind optimism in what Chambers has created here, a genuine sense of wonder about the kind of future we could build without resorting to the binary view that technology only has one path to increasing complexity. Instead, the new progress is one of balance and respect, at least we hope it is. But even as the biggest crises of human societies are brought to a close, there may be something even more vulnerable to add to the conversation. Chambers takes this opportunity not just to imagine what is possible for a vibrant future, but what would be left after everything we could dream of has been more than matched.
“How am I supposed to answer the question of what humans need if I can’t even determine what one human needs?” says Mosscap. I’m sure Dex would agree.
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Salon, Truthout, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, ThinkProgress, Political Research Associates, Alternet, and Roar Magazine.