Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Review: A Psalm for the Wild Built

I accidentally discovered A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers, while searching Arlington Library for my next read. I was thinking maybe I'd read something about Tehillim, The Book of Psalms, but when my search brought up a hit with a robot on the cover I was intrigued. Within a few minutes of listening to it, I was sold.

The book immediately gave me Murderbot Diaries vibes. Mind you, the universes and plots of these books are totally different, but the likable characters and accessible writing are common to both sci-fi series. And like the Murderbot Diaries, as soon as I finished the first book I reserved the second one in the sequence.

For a relatively short book, I found A Psalm to be thought provoking. I'll share some of those thoughts below, but do yourself a favor: consider the rest of this post a big 'ol spoiler. Stop now, and read A Psalm for the Wild Built. Then come back and let's compare notes.

***Spoilers Below***

With that out of the way, my first thought about A Psalm for the Wild Built was how narrow the plot of the book is. The storyline boils down to one character, Sibling Dex, struggling with having everything yet not being happy. That's it. There's no wars or famine here, just a character who should be happy, but isn't. I think Chambers makes this work based on her well written dialog, interesting characters and the construction of a fascinating universe. Still, it's a bold choice, yet one that I'm glad she made.

And speaking of universes, Chambers has created quite the world. On the surface, it seems to be a sort of Woke Utopia. Humans have finally learned to live in balance with the environment, trading obviously wasteful and ecologically harmful behaviors for those that let us live in sync with the planet. It took 109 years and a civil war costing 620,000 lives for the United States to come to grips with the fact that slaves, which were obviously people, should have the rights of, well, people. In Chamber's world, robots became conscious, and rather than argue that it was impossible for objects to become sentient, humans freed their robots and swear off robot technology. Even throw-away comments from the characters give a sense of how evolved the citizens of Chambers' worlds are: for example, when Sibling Dex explains that they've had the same computer since birth, because, why would ever need to replace a computer? I love that I was listening to that part of the story on my Galaxy S22, which if I'm lucky, has another year in it before I'll upgrade to a new device.

Even what's missing indicates a sort of utopia. There's no talk of war or corruption. You have a monk roaming the forests, and yet there's no sign of bandits or anyone looking to do Dex harm. It's like Chambers had re-read the Hunger Games and was on a mission to create the opposite world.

To complete the wokeness factor, the main character has no gender. This is the first book I've read where any character, much less the main character, is a they.

For those who bristle at the thought of a gender-free main character operating in a ecologically sensitive universe, I'd say: give the text a chance. The individuals who get credit for keeping the world going are the farmers and tradespeople. Without robots, the currency of the day is hard work and clever solutions. Add to that the fact that the religion and religious ceremonies play a central role, and I'd say that Becky Chambers essentially built a planet ruled by rednecks. Well played Chambers, well played.

While having a genderless main character took getting used to, I'm ultimately thankful for this decision. For one, it helps my brain adapt to using they and them as pronouns; something I don't do frequently IRL, but does happen. I also appreciate how Chambers accomplished this.

Consider an imaginary author writing a story about a female astronaut back in the 1960's. In one version of the story, the entire plot hinges on the fact a normally male role has been usurped by a female. The story writes itself: she must prove herself at every turn that she is as capable as man. Alternatively, the same author could have included a female astronaut simply because the story called for a human to be in that role, and women happen to be humans. In the latter case, the choice of a female astronaut doesn't alter the storyline; it just is. A Psalm for the Wild Built falls into this second category: the story called for a main character who struggles to find happiness and the fact that we're talking about Sibling Dex versus Brother or Sister Dex makes no real difference.

With that said, Chambers is normalizing a character having no gender, just like our imaginary author may opt to normalize female astronauts, so I suppose that itself a powerful statement. Time will tell if like the idea of a female astronaut, having characters without a gender ages well.

As a tea drinker, lover of the outdoors and problem solver, I do love that Sibling Dex's job is to putter around the country looking to craft and share different cups of tea with the aim of bringing relief to the community. Tea is delightfully versatile and can be used from everything from jolting yourself awake to calming yourself for bed, so even in our universe Sibling Dex's vocation makes sense. Who knows maybe one day I'll find myself with the desperate need to cosplay a character, in which case, I'm totally dressing up as a tea monk.

And finally, there's the title of the book: what the heck is that all about? I'm probably connecting dots I shouldn't be, but many of the psalms in The Book of Psalms include cryptic titles. Take Psalm 92, its title: A Psalm for the sabbath day would suggest that you're going to read a poem about Shabbat. Surprisingly, the text of this psalm never mentions Shabbat. So Chambers offering a perplexing title to a psalm is elegantly in line with this tradition.

Mulling this over for a few days, I can see the title hinting at two different themes. First, we learn in the book that 'wild built' refers to robots who have been built from reclaimed parts. The title suggests to me that perhaps this story isn't just for us the reader, but also for (wild built) robots. Mosscap, Sibling Dex's robot companion, is able to form a bond with a human that may be considered beyond what a robot would expect. In this context, 'A Psalm for the Wild Built' is sort of an inspirational text for robots: look at what Mosscap, and robots in general, can accomplish--isn't it amazing?

Another take on this title brings my attention back to Sibling Dex. Dex begins to find happiness when they step out of the manicured world that's been fashioned for them. In other words, it's Sibling Dex who becomes wild built and is the better for it.

Regarldless of what the title means, the book was an excellent one and I highly recommend it. On to book two!

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