Sunday, June 30, 2024

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Let’s start with the world for this story. It deserves some space in this review: the author devotes a considerable amount of this 160-page novella into exploring the repercussions of the premise she sets up. It’s also novel and intriguing: it is some unspecified time in the future, humans have headed off climate devastation and other environmental concerns, and entered a post-scarcity world. A few hundred years ago, robots gained sentience, and chose to separate from human society, vanishing into the wilderness of the Earth.

How did humans manage to steer the violent, brainless beast of capitalism away from total climate destruction? Unclear. How did humans achieve a new society where all human needs were met? Unclear. How did humanity react to the rebellion of the labourers they had been exploiting? Apparently peacefully, magnanimously, without a shred of the brutality and exceptionalism of our colonialist (and capitalist) past.

These are pressing questions—our challenges are to save our environment and overthrow our still-imperial power structures—and the book dwells on none of them. The world is fleshed out with paragraphs of detail about buildings made from mushrooms, and cell phones that last a lifetime, solar power and bicycle-based transportation. It’s a cozy, non-threatening world unconcerned with how it came to be, a fantasy of how lovely things will be once we finally have the ugly parts solved.

Of course, all stories must have a conflict; this novella revolves around the main character’s search for a purpose in life. Dex switches careers from garden monk to tea monk — a sort of therapist — but finds this too doesn’t quite fulfill them. Their desire to be surrounded by the cricket sounds of the countryside rather than the bustle of urban life goes unquenched: crickets went nearly extinct during the mysteriously averted climate crisis. In a search for life’s meaning, they spontaneously decide to travel through the wilderness, reserved for only robots. They meet a robot, Mosscap, who has struck up a hobbyist’s curiosity in humans. The two journey together, discussing their two societies, and, eventually, Dex’s search for purpose in life: 

You’re an animal, Sibling Dex. You are not separate or other. You’re an animal. And animals have no purpose. Nothing has a purpose. The world simply is. If you want to do things that are meaningful to others, fine! Good! … You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live. 

But just living isn’t enough for Dex. The world is post-scarcity, it is no longer a question of survival but about thriving, and they see their mortality approaching in the distance:

All I have is right now, and at some point, I’ll just end, and I can’t predict when that will be, and—and if I don’t use this time for something, if I don’t make the absolute most of it, then I’ll have wasted something precious.

I found myself wondering why such a detailed, fantastical world was created to explore the rather introspective and everyday question of one’s purpose in life. Is it to contrast mortality with immortality in terms of meaning in life (a theme in Circe)? No, the robots who first gained consciousness chose to be mortal, we learn, and so when their time comes, their parts are reassembled into new robots, the “wild-built”. The link between the world and the central conflict is finally revealed when Mosscap argues:

But when we woke up and said, We have realized our purpose, and we do not want it, you respected that. More than respected. You rebuilt everything to accommodate our absence. You were proud of us for transcending our purpose, and proud of yourselves for honoring our individuality. So, why, then, do you insist on having a purpose for yourself, one which you are desperate to find and miserable without

But it’s an unpersuasive argument, it comes unearned: we have no idea how humanity accommodated the robots’ demand for self-determination. Human history has zero examples of oppressed peoples being handed their autonomy because they peacefully demanded it. So our answer to this search for purpose, the unifying element between world and conflict, is this event we are supposed to be proud of that we never see in the pages.

Perhaps a longer fantasy epic, dealing with these world-shaking events and later linking them to Dex’s own individual search for meaning, would address this issue. But I think the flaw in the novella goes deeper. For all the pages are filled with cozy passages about cooking dinner and growing plants and watching stars, Dex’s world is very empty. They have no family that relies on them, no lovers, no friends (excepting Mosscap). They do not even seem to have a sense of duty and responsibility to the clients that come to Dex with their heavy hearts. The world is nearly perfect, extinct crickets aside, and so there is nothing Dex is building towards or trying to fix. (Maybe Dex should find meaning in reviving extinct crickets?)

Finding purpose in your life is not trivial, but it is these pursuits — loved ones, science, social welfare — that help me answer this question. Dex does not find an answer — it is enough just to exist, but it is rational to want more, and good to define your own purpose. And here the theme truly ties in with the setting: a sleepy, cozy village, filled with petty bourgeois farmers market stands, and a Proudhonist yearning for bucolic individualism. The resulting story is soporific. The hard problems will be solved (by who? how?), and what remains is just what you want and define for yourself.

Tl;dr: 30-something with professional ennui discovers the joys of hiking.

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