I cried far more often during this 147-page read than I’m strictly comfortable with, but the wise characters in this book would reassure me that my being comfortable with something isn’t a pre-requisite for it having worth.
For the first third of this novella, we are with Sibling Dex getting a feel for them and the world they live in. Dex lives on the moon Panga where centuries before the robots of Panga gained self-awareness, laid down their tools, and recoiled from Factory life. They had brokered an understanding with the humans, known as the Parting Promise, where the continent of Panga was divided equally between the humans and the robots who wandered into the wilderness, and haven’t been seen since. Fast forward to now (and about a third of the way into the story) and the life of Sibling Dex, the tea monk (great job – wander the countryside offering comfort to others by providing a time to unload their emotions and rest with tea to restore), is upended by the arrival of a robot, Mosscap, there to honor the old promise of checking in. Mosscap cannot return until the question of “what do people need?” is answered and is unprepared for Sibling Dex’s distress and inability to provide the answer to that question because the answer depends on who you ask, when, and how.
What follows in the rest of the novella is Mosscap and Dex coming to an agreement, Dex will answer Mosscap’s questions to the best of their ability if Mosscap gets them safely to the Hermitage up the mountain deep in the wilderness where humans have left the land for the Robots. The plot here though, isn’t really the purpose. Psalm for the Wild-Built is yet another example of the character driven stories of which Chambers excels.
We have Sibling Dex who is at a place, mentally and emotionally, where they are just tired. They are soul tired. I can relate. They had identified a purpose for their life, and then identified another one and did the hard work to make that new purpose happen, and then were able to excel at it. But it still left them with this aching within, a want of an undefinable more, a fixation on a thing they cannot have. It created a place within them that desperately needed the self-care that they so willingly offered to others but had forgotten in some fundamental way to give themselves.
Then we have Mosscap who volunteered to go alone into the unknown and report back. It didn’t have a plan other than to wander out of the wilderness until it came across a person, to be the first robot to do that in over two hundred years. Mosscap is a generalist, someone who is fascinated by everything. This inquisitiveness, this desire to discover, means it is uniquely placed to provide a sounding board that Sibling Dax needs, and to slowly discover the great mystery of the human condition.
Because this novella is a meditation on what we call the human condition. Chambers weaves together the struggle to find purpose, to know what our purpose even is, to find meaning in our lives both individually and in community to form a tapestry of personhood. Chambers captures what informs our natures and uses the small details that tell us so much about who we are, crafting vivid writing to discuss identity and personhood. All underpinned with unrelenting hope and connection, even when the characters aren’t sure it exists. Chambers makes for us a hymn, a psalm, for how we can choose to be. Like so many others I am very excited to see what comes next in A Prayer for the Crown-Shy.