When the inevitable labor dystopia comes crashing down around our ears, I can only hope that the future humanity builds out of the rubble resembles the world in A Psalm for the Wild-Built.
This cozy novella follows Sibling Dex, a nonbinary tea monk as they journey through Panga. They have a cart, a full selection of herbs and tea accoutrement, pillows, and a kind ear to lend. They’re not necessarily a therapist, but slightly adjacent. A friendly face who’s willing to listen to your troubles, offer you a nice cuppa, and give you a chance to rest.
Dex’s whole job is to hold space for others. And while they find this important, as they travel their route, they eventually realize that they’re unhappy. The work is good work, but it’s not fulfilling. It’s not enough. They still want to hear crickets in the evening, they still want to feel something bigger.
In typical mid-to-late-twenties crises mode, they decide to head for a semi-mythical mountain hermitage in the wilds, abandoned before the end of the Factory Age. As far as off-the-cuff decisions go, it’s not the worst I’ve seen. During this absolutely fantastic display of a person experiencing an existential crises that they accidentally come into contact with a robot. The first robot any human has been in contact with in hundreds of years.
Robots, in Psalm, are the descendants of the factory machines who gained sentience and abandoned their posts. Their ascendancy into individual consciousness prompted the end of the Factory Age, and pushed humanity to change (by all measures, it seems, for the better). The robot community vowed to leave humans alone, but left a Promise—they will come back, but on their own terms. At the point that Dex meets this living machine, the robots are a fairy tale, more or less.
The robot that Dex runs into is Mosscap—a wild-built robot reconstructed from the older factory models. Mosscap is an emissary of the robots, sent to reestablish contact with humans, with the express purpose of asking humanity (in general) what they might be in need of. It’s unfortunate that Mosscap has met Dex first, as they have genuinely no clue what they want.
The story that comes out of this unlikely pairing; a dissatisfied tea monk searching for the sound of crickets at night and a sentient robot with a fondness for insects, is nothing short of wonderful. As the two creatures share desires, understandings, and their cultures, out comes a gentle peace within their companionship.
There’s a distance between Psalm and the real world in a way that a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction doesn’t grapple with. The worldbuilding in the piece is a tribute to the future we could have; the future that we might be working towards. It’s a slant omen, like a fairy tale. Descriptive moments of rest and abbreviated movement creates a coziness to the narrative. The focus isn’t on the dangers of living as we are now, but the metaphor is clear. Focusing on the story’s present moment, A Psalm for the Wild-Built cares most deeply about the relationship between Dex and Mosscap, the commune between two characters and the gaps in their knowledge. With the book speaking to us, and the main characters listening to others, this is a book about the necessary artistry of conversation.
Within this book are affirmations that in any other context might seem overly sentimental, but when presented as a matter of fact from a sentient robot, become weirdly resonant. There’s a particular moment when the pair are having a rather deep existential conversation when Dex asks Mosscap how they can deal with the possibility of their existence being meaningless. Mosscap responds, “Because I know that no matter what, I’m wonderful.”
It’s such a simple exchange, but the emotional weight of this in the book is really remarkable. So much of Psalm is a commentary on the anxieties of living in a world that expects productivity, when often we just need to sit down, listen, and perhaps have a cup of tea. The novella remarks on the overwhelming need for self-development and self-improvement in our contemporary society and asks what if we didn’t hold ourselves to these standards? What if we just existed and allowed who we are to be safe within our own selves.
Psalm asks, what if we chose to just be, without expectation. What do we gain when we realize, without conditions, that we are enough, that being alive is enough to be wonderful?
A Psalm for the Wild-Built exists in a wilderness of comfort. It is an elegy for the people that we might have been, and it’s a hopeful look towards the future, using modern anxieties as a way to create a remarkable intimacy between the reader and Sibling Dex. The inherent reliability of this novella in its voice, structure, and narrative choices will make it a standard in the idealized futurism of hopepunk stories.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Read an excerpt here.
Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.