It took me a while to warm up to A Psalm for the Wild-Built, a book that I’ve been excited for since I first saw Feifei Ruan’s cover art (the robot, the butterflies, the plants! Oooo, glee!). Chambers’ style here is quite different to that used in her Wayfarers books and Dex was … not easy to like, at first. So, I’ve been sitting on this for a bit. Waiting to see which of my opinions would sift out and which would remain.
Most of all, A Psalm for the Wild-Built reminds me of a philosophical dialogue, not telling a story so much as exploring a moral position. We are presented first with Dex’s behaviour, their uncertainty and concerns about their life’s purpose as they change professions, and still find themselves unhappy; and then we meet Mosscap, who interrogates Dex’s beliefs and presents an alternative position. When I think about the book this way, it makes me less frustrated with the gardener-turned-tea-monk.
Dex is the kind of person who, if I were to meet them IRL, I would avoid with determination. They can’t help it, I don’t think. They just don’t make great decisions. It took me longer than I’d normally like to feel anything other than annoyance about them. The problem with that being that the riddle they’re trying to solve with all those bad decisions is an incredibly human one – that of discovering their purpose so that they can be happy – something I think we’ve all wrestled with at some time or another, but the revelation came too late for me to fully soften to Dex.
Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy what this little book had to offer. Let’s just not talk about Dex anymore, ‘kay?
Because I loved Panga. A moon on which a huge rewilding project has been undertaken: the land having been divided in half, one half for human use, the other returned to nature, and the ocean left to its own devices. A society that has moved through a Factory Age and come out the other side after the robot workers achieved sentience and chose to go out into the wilderness rather than live alongside humanity. A human population that has learned to enjoy the work that must be done, to reuse and recycle and generate energy in kinder ways and generally be a bit more thoughtful about where they put things. Panga has only one City, (which gave me The City and the Stars vibes at first), and the rest of the population lives in smaller villages. When Dex travels between these villages as a tea-monk they do so in an “ox-bike wagon” peddle-powered and self-sufficient. It’s a place where humanity has made better decisions and has considered more than just themselves when doing so.
And maybe it’s actually kind of perfect that when the robots finally decide to remake contact with humanity, their voluntary representative, Splendid Speckled Mosscap, should meet the confused and questing Dex on the borders of the wilderness. Who better to teach it about the ridiculous, contrary, good-intentioned, fundamentally flawed species that created its own kind?
Mosscap is truly a splendid character, stepping out of the wilderness and into Dex’s camp asking, “What do you need, and how might I help?” I loved that it is interested in everything; its curiosity is a delight, and its fascination and excitement about everything from an encounter with a bear to making a fire for the first time completely turned the book around for me.
I’m not sure I can really put the rest of my feelings into words without copious quotations. Let’s just say that I personally could have used a friend like Mosscap a few years ago, and also that I think tea-monks should be a real thing.
And that, Dex notwithstanding, my takeaway from A Psalm for the Wild-Built is this:
“Do you not find consciousness alone to be the most exhilarating thing? Here we are, in this incomprehensibly large universe, on this one tiny moon around this one incidental planet, and in all the time this entire scenario has existed, every component has been recycled over and over again into infinitely incredible configurations, and sometimes, those configurations are special enough to be able to see the world around them. You and I – we’re just atoms that arranged themselves the right way, and we can understand that about ourselves. Is that not amazing?”
Because yes. Yes, it is.