#233: A CUP OF GREAT HAPPINESS TEA. It’s fun sometimes to sit down to a completely unfamiliar movie—haven’t seen the preview, haven’t read the reviews, don’t know the director—and that was exactly my experience of reading Becky Chambers’ fantasy novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Tor, 2021). It was a Christmas present, I hadn’t heard of the title, I didn’t know Chambers even by name. There’s a fair bit about her on the internet, including an article wondering if Chambers is the “ultimate hope for science fiction.” (My goodness.) The article describes her as “a writer of hip, very-now science fiction books…touchy-feely, interior, brimful of tea.” You may understand why I’m glad I went in blind.
Psalm takes place in the future, when mankind has very narrowly avoided ecological disaster and is rebuilding society; in deference to robot forms that have achieved consciousness, they have divided their land, left the robots to live their own lives, and humans in their own space are using tech but taking care not to be used by it—sort of techno-agrarian, with scatterings of villages among wild patches. Dex, a non-gendered monastic (they’re called Sibling rather than brother or sister) leaves their cloister to go out into the world as a bringer of various restorative teas—sort of a combination tea ceremony-cum-non-directive counseling session. After having worked hard and long and gotten the hang of this, Dex is plagued with a sense of dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion, and they strike out to the hinterlands, like Huck lighting out for the territories, and there encounters a helpful and infinitely curious robot by the name of Mosscap (“Technically I am Splendid Speckled Mosscap, but our remembrance of humans is that you like to shorten names.” All the robots are named for natural species.). It is the first contact between human and robot since what’s called The Transition, and Mosscap is eager to know how humans have fared since the separation. The robot’s reiterated question is “What do humans need?” Against its better judgment, it decides to accompany Dex on a quest to find an old and abandoned monastic hermitage, out in the unreclaimed wilds.
Dex and Mosscap turn into a sort of comedy duo, and the narrative speed and wit put the book at some distance from the whispered wet seriousness of much new age writing, as well as from dystopian science fiction, which tends to instill a feeling towards our future (reasonably enough) of “Brace yourself, Martha.” The world-building is a quick sketch, but the gossamer turns out to be quite strong enough to hold the tale together. The story zips along purposively but with plenty of time for an occasional bear attack or the first recorded human-robot conversation about pronouns (Dex, identified as “they,” is a bit startled when Mosscap opts for “it.”).* The Zen monk Gibbon Sengai referred to his drawings as “a cup of great happiness tea,” and Psalm for the Wild-Built affected me quite like one of Dex’s revivifying brews; I finished it with a sigh of satisfaction. By the time they’ve weathered a stormy night in a cave, made it to the abandoned hermitage, reached towards each other in a Shavian dialogue, Dex and Mosscap do finally get in the room with the question that’s beset them. The response Chambers provides, proper to fiction, is not a philosophical scree but found in the characters themselves. What do humans need? The answer, of course, is always provisional; but, just once in a while, it’s nice to be asked.
*As it happens, Psalm for the Wild-Built is the first fiction I’ve read using “they” for the protagonist, and I will admit I balked at it: every time Dex is referred to as “they,” I looked around for someone else in the room. This is probably a generational problem; as a septuagenarian, “they” remains for me a stubbornly plural pronoun. Couldn’t we please, à la Norwegian, invent a new singular third-person pronoun? Or is it too late?