Becky Chambers is no stranger to awards and accolades. She’s garnered nominations for (including two this year if I’m counting correctly) six Hugo awards since 2017, and even won ‘Best Series’ for The Wayfarers in 2019. Wired magazine has even gone so far as to ask if she is ‘the ultimate hope for Science Fiction’.
Yet somehow, A Psalm for the Wild-Built happens to be the first of Chamber’s work that I’ve read. Clearly I really have my finger on the pulse here . . .
Anyway, without having read any of her other works, I will not try to answer whether or not she is Science Fiction’s Ultimate Hope, but instead just try to figure out if this delightful novella is enough to win the Hugo Award.
I suppose I can start with my initial impressions . . .
Which weren’t actually all that great. While the level of worldbuilding Chambers is a able to achieve in so few pages is impressive, I felt the novella’s opening was particularly laden with it, to the point of which I almost did not last long enough to meet Dex, our main character.
However, I’m happy to say that I stuck with it and was all the happier for it.
APftWB is an interesting story because it is actually so many kinds of stories all at once. I considered the setting to be a kind of after-the-fall scenario in which (uniquely) humanity has managed not kill itself completely, but instead use moderation and prudence to reach a kind of sustainability, without robots no-less.
Of course, there are still hints and echoes of what The Past Is Red would have called the Fuckwit’s society – decaying factories, degrading monasteries, and many other relics of a wasteful people – but in general, it seems this version of humanity may have hit the breaks in time and even rebounded into something of a utopia in progress.
That Chambers manages to pull a kind of Bildungsroman (for Dex) out of this idyllic setting is nothing short of phenomenal. The story, in some ways, appears to have no (traditional) conflict, and yet it is indeed saturated with it. As we move farther from the safety of the monastery the questions needing answered become existential quickly. What is the purpose of life? What is my unique purpose? How many purposes can someone have? Which one is the right one? Why aren’t I happy?
Luckily we have Splendid Speckled Mosscap (Robot). Luckily we have tea.
I think this is truly the magic Chambers brings to her writing. She is somehow able to grapple with these large meaning-of-life-sized questions while simultaneously making us laugh, or say ‘aww’, or sigh and let the tension release from our shoulders.
She is somehow able to show us the dread, and soothe us from it too. I don’t know that I’ve really ever read anything like it before.
So . . . Award?
Yes! As of right now, I think this is the one I would choose for best novella. While I felt the beginning lagged a bit, once APftWB got going, there was so much to consider and enjoy that I was actually a bit upset when the story closed. Within its pages, I felt we got a glimpse of a hopeful if not perfect future, as well as a kind of balm for the near constant anxiety that our modern society – too focused on purpose, legacy, and doing, doing, doing – creates without concern or restraint.
Any novella that can accomplish all that, deserves the award in my book.
Anyway, that’s all I have now. Has anyone else read this story? What did you think? What was your favorite part? What was your favorite robot name / occupation? Leave your answers in the comments.
See you next time!