Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky ChambersA Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk & Robot, #2) by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, hopepunk, science fiction, solarpunk
Series: Monk & Robot #2
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After touring the rural areas of Panga, Sibling Dex (a Tea Monk of some renown) and Mosscap (a robot sent on a quest to determine what humanity really needs) turn their attention to the villages and cities of the little moon they call home.
They hope to find the answers they seek, while making new friends, learning new concepts, and experiencing the entropic nature of the universe.
Becky Chambers's new series continues to ask: in a world where people have what they want, does having more even matter?

My Review:

This book is the prayer, and we are all, all of us who read this marvelous story, the crown-shy.

Crown shyness is a real-world phenomenon. About trees. Which is totally fitting for this story that features two people – even though one of them doesn’t refer to itself as “people” – who are exploring both friendship and all the myriad wonders of their world together.

Some trees spend their early years growing taller as fast as they can, reaching for the open sky and the sun. Then they start growing outwards, filling in branches and creating their part of the canopy of a forest. You’d think that those leaves and branches up in the canopy would overlap with the trees on all sides, creating a barrier between the sun in the sky and the ground far, far below.

But they don’t. Many species are “crown-shy”, meaning that they somehow know where their limits are and leave just a bit of space, a channel, between where their leaves end and the next tree’s leaves begin. So that the sun does reach the ground to give other denizens of the forest a chance to grow.

The communities in Panga are like that. They grow but so big and no further, so that each village has enough – actually more than enough – to sustain itself and its people. No one needs to want for more.

And that’s what’s at the heart of the Monk & Robot series so far. That question about what do beings want, either as individuals or as a community. What, for that matter, is there to want once society has somehow evolved past our current, endless hunger for more?

The tea-monk Sibling Dex and the robot Mosscap met in the first book in this terrific series, A Psalm for the Well-Built, because they were both asking variations of that question. Sibling Dex had pulled off the beaten path into the woods because they were in the throes of burnout and were asking themselves if what they were doing was what they wanted to do. If their endless journey was all there was or would be to their life.

While Mosscap was asking itself what had happened to the humans after the robots achieved self-awareness and walked away into the depths of the forest. What did humans need? And more specifically, was there anything that robots could do for them or with them?

The first book followed Dex’ journey deep into the wilderness, into Mosscap’s territory, to a remote location that was once sacred to their god and their service as a tea-monk. This second journey goes the other direction, as Dex and Mosscap head towards the City, home of the University and all its scholars, so that Mosscap can ask its questions of the people in Dex’ world who are supposed to have all the answers.

Only to discover that they’ve both already found their destination. And that what they truly need is each other.

Escape Rating A: If you’re looking for a story that will shed some light into the darkness, just as those crown-shy trees let light through to the forest floor, read A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. Because they are the purest of hopepunk, and we all need that right now.

This is a book that asks some pretty big questions, and then lets its two protagonists work out the answers for themselves as they travel through a lovely world that may have solved many of the problems we have today but still doesn’t have all the answers.

As Mosscap discovers, the value is in both asking and being asked the questions. The robot started out with “what do humans need?” The answers that it finds surprise it. In a world where striving for more for more’s own sake seems to have been eliminated, what humans need seems to boil down to one of two things.

Either someone needs help with a very specific concrete issue that either they haven’t gotten around to or for which there isn’t anyone local with the right skills or knowledge. Or, the answer is more existential, where the short version is often something like “purpose” or “fulfillment”. The kinds of things that a person needs to determine for themselves.

As does a robot. Mosscap discovers that it has no answer for itself to its own question. It doesn’t know – at least not yet – what it needs or what its fellow robots need. I sincerely hope that the series will continue, and that we’ll get to follow Mosscap and Dex as they hunt for their own answers.

In the end, this book is an antidote to so much that is happening right now in the world. It’s a walk through light and beautiful places, led by two beings who have learned that friendship is the most important journey of all.

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

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky ChambersA Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot, #1) by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: hopepunk, science fiction, solarpunk
Series: Monk & Robot #1
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers's delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.
It's been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.
One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of what do people need? is answered.
But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.
They're going to need to ask it a lot.
Becky Chambers's new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?

My Review:

A Psalm for the Wild-Built turned out to be a surprisingly lovely read about both finding oneself and finding friendship, even if there were plenty of times when I wondered where on earth, or rather where on Panga, the entire thing was going.

But that turned out to be the appropriate reaction, as there were plenty of times when Sibling Dex and Mosscap wondered, separately and together, where their journey was going, and if they’d recognize their destination when they finally reached it.

Assuming they ever did.

At first, this reads as a story of self discovery of one particular self, the person of Sibling Dex. Dex (If the name reminds you of Stargate: Atlantis you are not the only one.) Dex’ world is not our world. It may or may not have ever been our world, but it certainly isn’t by the point of their “now”.

Because Sibling Dex’ now is in a post-industrial age. It also seems to be in a post-consumerism age and certainly a post-robotic age. Money still has value, and people still work for wages or exchanges – Dex seems to work for exchanges as much as they do for credits – but it seems very different from our now.

And that’s because there doesn’t seem to be any artificially inflated “wanting” of stuff. The Joneses don’t seem to exist to be kept up with. There’s nothing in the story about how they got past our never-ending hunger for “more”, but somehow they did.

Or at least they did in the material sense. The emotional sense, the fulfillment sense, is still alive and well and eating Sibling Dex up more and more each day. They had a good life as a monk, a servant to one of the gods, but it wasn’t enough. So they started over again as a tea monk, traveling the countryside and dispensing special blends of tea, places to rest and relax, and solace when people needed it.

After a rocky start, Dex is very good at it. And it’s a fulfilling life, but it seems to fulfill Dex less and less with each passing day. So Dex turns off the road well-traveled for a trek out into the wilderness in search of whatever undefined something is not present in their life as it is.

And that’s where the story really begins, as the monk with no idea about what they really want meets the robot who has volunteered to discover what humans really want. Neither of them has a clue, about their journey, about their destination, or about each other.

Escape Rating A-: I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I opened this book. Kind of like Sibling Dex doesn’t know what they’re letting themselves in for when they take that road much, much less traveled.

I was hoping that whatever I got would be as good as To Be Taught, If Fortunate. That hope was most definitely fulfilled. But there was a point – actually several points – where I was as much in the dark about the book’s journey as Sibling Dex was about their own.

The setup for this is fascinating – so I’m really happy that this appears to be a series and we’ll get to visit Panga again. Some of that fascination is in the way that human nature is either vastly different from the way humans behave here and now – or that they’ve evolved a long way from where we are now. Or both.

Because in Panga, in the not all that far past, in its factory/industrial era, the humans created robots to do the hard work for them. When the robots slipped over the line into self-awareness and asked to leave to pursue their own goals, the humans let them go. Without pursuit, without rancor, without warfare.

If you’ve ever played the Mass Effect Trilogy, then you may understand my astonishment. In that universe, one race created robots to do their hard work for them, but when the robots asked if they had souls, their creators attempted to wipe them off the face of the galaxy. And failed, miserably, for both sides and pretty much everyone else.

That’s the reaction we tend to expect, that humans or their equivalent will go to war to hang onto what they believe is theirs. But in Panga, we got enlightenment – and environmentalism! – instead. Or something damn close to it.

The robots have gone their own way, far into the wilderness, to find their own fulfillment. Or to spend decades watching stalactites grow. Whatever floats their individual and particular boat. They’ve learned to find purpose in just being, rather than endlessly doing.

But they do wonder what humans have done in their absence. Not out of fear, but out of curiosity. And that’s where Dex meets Mosscap, in that realm of curiosity. Dex wants to learn whether or not the life they have is all there is. Mosscap wants to explore what humans are.

At first they are more than a bit at cross purposes. Mosscap knows it needs a guide, while Dex refuses to admit that they do as well. What makes the story work is the way that they learn to come together in friendship. Their discovery that what they have both been looking for is each other – even if, like so much else of their journey towards each other – they had no clue.

The story asks a lot of questions that echo after it ends. It’s a story that asks, “is that all there is?” but slyly leads the reader to think about the meaning of that phrase. Because it’s never about anything we expect.

But at the end, what makes this story so very lovely is the friendship between two beings who have nothing in common, but who, in the end, have everything in common – along with a comforting mug of tea.

The second book in this series, which is being called solarpunk but feels more like hopepunk, is A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, and will hopefully come out sometime next year.