There is a moment in Becky Chambers’s A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, the latest instalment of her Monk and Robot novella series, when our protagonists preside over the death of a fish. Without giving too much away, it’s a moment as profound as it is utterly mundane. It is a moment in a chain of moments, vignetted together as our leading players—the tea monk Sibling Dex and their robot companion Mosscap—wind their way across the landscape of the terraformed moon Panga.
And yet the moment is striking. For the first time in this exceptionally gentle series, we observe a living thing die at the hands of another. It isn’t malicious or even unexpected: we are told early on that we are going fishing, an activity synonymous with humanity since time prehistoric. There is likewise no moralizing against it on the part of the narrative. Dex doesn’t go out of their way to eat meat, but is not a strict vegetarian, and in fact they eat meat several times in this book alone (in meals enticingly rendered by Chambers’s concise descriptions). It is only because of Mosscap’s presence that the act is reframed as anything other than commonplace.
Because, whereas A Psalm for the Wild-Built was preoccupied with Dex’s journey into the unknown wilds of Panga’s reforested wilderness, Crown-Shy is its inversion. This time, it is Mosscap who is stepping into unknown territory and Dex who must act as guide amidst the world that raised them.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Dex’s problems have been solved.
It’s impossible to review A Prayer for the Crown-Shy in a vacuum. The novella is too much in conversation with its predecessor, too much an immediate continuation of Wild Built’s story, that it would be a disservice to not look at them as parts of a whole.
At the end of the previous book, Dex and Mosscap find themselves in an abandoned temple to the gods of Panga. Reaching this sanctuary has ostensibly been the goal that Dex single-mindedly set for themself when they ghosted their own life and ventured into the untamed forest. Much of their journey in Wild-Built is dedicated to the warring dichotomy of Dex’s utter helplessness in the wild and their desire to project meaning onto the chaotic world around them.
The culmination of this journey is that Dex finds no immediate sense of belonging or fulfillment in the temple itself, which turns out to be little more than a ruin amidst the resurgent forest. The grand catharsis Dex seeks is not waiting there for them, that can only be found within themself. Instead, a much more tranquil exchange takes place, where Mosscap inexpertly facilitates a tea ceremony for Dex, a practice up until now the monk has made their vocation.
Tea ceremonies on Panga are functionally a therapeutic exercise. The monk practitioner offers customers a perfectly brewed cup of whatever blend will best meet their needs along with a judgment-free ear to listen to their troubles, and ideally a period of reflection and repose before they head back into their day. This is exactly what Dex needs, as they relate to Mosscap their feelings of stagnation and dissatisfaction with what, for most readers of these books, might seem like a utopian life. “What is wrong with me,” they ask, “that I can have everything I could ever want and have ever asked for and still wake up in the morning feeling like every day is a slog?”
The answer to this is, of course, there is nothing wrong with Dex. They’re experiencing the human condition. Mosscap points this out, reminding both Dex and the reader that needing rest or care or a change of pace does not require justification, nor is it wrong to want them even when things are going well. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to earn the right to be alive. You are allowed to just be.
This maxim is a tough pill to swallow, as much for Dex as it is for anyone in our world. If you are good at something, is it wrong to not utilize those skills for others? If we are all responsible for the needs of the community, what do we do when our needs and the needs of others don’t align?
How do we justify our own existence, and why do we feel the need to when we would never ask anyone else to justify theirs?
One of the most endearing qualities of Becky Chambers’s approach to the worlds she creates are the way in which she contextualizes the big questions of science fiction, the “Why are we here”s and the “What makes us human”s, through the perspectives of ordinary people. The heroes of Chambers’s books are usually laborers, parents, elders, perhaps the occasional fugitive whose goal is living as quietly under the radar as possible.
Dex and Mosscap are no different, though Crown-Shy sees them thrust into somewhat unexpected notoriety as they begin their journey through Panga’s human territories. Neither is seeking to change the world, and in fact the world they live in doesn’t actually seem to require changing. What the Monk and Robot series explores through its solarpunk setting are the existential questions that arise even when all one’s basic needs are met. For Dex it is a struggle with purpose and direction, for Mosscap it is the much broader question of “What do humans need?” A question they find increasingly confounding as they are introduced to the human denizens of Panga.
Panga’s civilization is perhaps the platonic ideal of solarpunk. A world that, a few centuries prior, was on a similar catastrophic trajectory to our own via unregulated industrial expansion and climate destruction. It is only a massive consciousness-shifting event, the awakening sentience of the very robotic labor fueling production, that prompts Panga to alter course. What amounts to a global labor walkout on the part of the robots, who seek no further contact with their creators, forces Pangans to confront their unsustainable practices, abandon their factories, and radically reconfigure their societies in favor of eco-friendly materials, robust networks of social support, and mindful consumption.
The result is a reading experience like a warm hug. Panga is positively cozy. Even in its densest urban centers, which we only glimpse briefly, Chambers describes a lush paradise of “rooftop patios and vertical forests, farms built underground, gardens that nearly touched the clouds” (p. 89). In the smaller rural communities that we spend far more time in, we see forest dwellings suspended from trees, floating homes of reclaimed storage crates and recycled materials, seaside huts, and communal farms powered by wind turbines. Everything feels dappled in sunshine and in balance with nature around it, an interesting juxtaposition with the unfettered natural world we experienced in the first book. The wilderness may not be mindful of humans, but humans have certainly learned to be mindful of nature in this world.
This is possible in part because capitalism no longer exists on Panga, a concept that can be at once exhilarating and also inconceivable for a reader like myself living in the United States in 2022. At one point Dex patiently explains their culture’s version of currency to Mosscap, a publicly accessible virtual exchange system called pebs:
“[...] Exchanging pebs isn’t about bartering. It’s about benefit. You are a part of the community, and the farmer doing something for you means that they are, effectively, doing something for the group.” (p. 26)
No one has any incentive to hoard pebs or use them for ill thanks to this mindset, and because, of course, no one wants for food, shelter, or support in this world built around tenets of mutual aid and communal benefit. Similarly, a large deficit of pebs is not an indicator of greed or antagonism, but rather a cry for help from someone who is facing difficulties in their life, as Dex explains to a querying Mosscap:
“If I saw a friend’s balance and it was way in the red, I’d make a point of checking in.”
“You can see other people’s balances?”
“Yeah, of course. It’s all public.”
“Does that not get competitive?”
Dex squinted. “Why would it?” (p. 27)
I’m a little ashamed to admit the first time I read this exchange, I scoffed. It can feel impossible, sometimes, to imagine a world like this, where unchecked consumption and amassing power are actively discouraged. It can even be uncomfortable, to look up from a book so suffused with tenderness and respect for life, and be reminded that it is very much not the world we live in.
Envisioning a world where, even in the face of great upheaval, the powers that be would ever choose to abandon the death cult of capitalism in favor of collective support and restraint, can be difficult. Such things are easily written off as escapist fantasy. But then again, once upon a time so was the idea of humans being able to fly.
The purpose of solarpunk is to exemplify the ways in which a better world is possible. To remind us that, as all things in the universe, our current circumstances are no more permanent than anything else in nature. The present systems that feel insurmountable are the products of choices, made by people, and often felt for generations afterwards. Solarpunk is there to remind us that the choices we make now will matter too, long after we are gone.
Like the previous book, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy takes the shape of a road trip. Dex and Mosscap enter the human apportioned half of Panga on what is essentially a grand tour of civilization, stopping at settlements along the way so that Mosscap can meet and observe humans. While the purpose of this is, on its face, to report back to the other robots about how humans are getting on without them, it is also clearly a chance for the ever-curious Mosscap to observe an entirely new world, to Dex’s combined dismay and delight (despite the robot’s keen emotional intelligence, it hasn’t quite grasped the concepts of privacy or tact).
Much of Mosscap and Dex’s odd-couple humor stems from their mismatched lived experiences, their conflicts from certain unbridgeable gaps in their understanding, despite obvious fondness for each other. Dex is content to take over as guide to Mosscap’s pilgrim, but must contend with the fact that as an inorganic being, Mosscap’s interactions with the world are fundamentally different from their own. Sometimes this is adorable, as when Mosscap eagerly begins reading large swathes of human literature:
“What kind of books does Ms. Amelia collect?”
“Oh, entirely pornography,’ Mosscap said. “It was very educational.” (pp. 58-59)
At other times, it is distressing, such as when Mosscap begins to malfunction while on the road. The robot soberly accepts that its life is now over without fanfare, as its forebears had done when they too began to break down. Dex’s response, meanwhile, is all too human, and immediately sets about finding a way to repair their friend.
The episode that follows is an engrossing and fascinating philosophical exercise, in which Dex and Mosscap debate concepts of bodily autonomy, self-augmentation, transhumanism, and transparent consumption practices. Also Dex meets a hunky 3-D printer.
Much of Dex’s experiences with Mosscap require them to try to explain facets of human life that they’ve never questioned, and in turn Mosscap must contend with the many ways in which humanity, ever resourceful, have engineered conditions that separate them from the basic necessities and limitations of animals.
And then there are the moments of transcendent loveliness in which both Dex and Mosscap take time to marvel at the miraculous strangeness of life. There are several of these in the book, all of them quiet and wondrous, but the one that stays lodged in the mind is the image that echoes the novella’s title. I hadn’t known what shyness of the crown was before picking up this book. Upon reading the title I assumed it was referring to the protagonists eschewing their newfound fame, or some kind of role of authority placed upon them. Instead, the answer is altogether much simpler and more sublime.
At one point on their journey, Mosscap points out a section of forest that exhibits crown shyness, an unexplainable phenomenon that causes the branches of trees to grow only just far enough so as not to touch their neighbors, creating a patchwork canopy like “puzzle pieces laid out on the table, each in their own place yet still unconnected” (p.76). The moment is so fleeting, as most moments are, and yet it resonates with unspoken meaning.
Throughout the book there is a sense of harmony among the people of Panga. For certain they all have their own problems and struggles, the common anxieties that plague people even in the most optimal of circumstances. But there is a lack of blind ambition or institutional greed, a sense that humans in this world have finally learned to create abundance without stealing it from anything else. Much like the aforementioned trees, everyone grows upward, stretches toward the sunlight, and manages this without encroaching on anyone else’s ability to do so.
Dex, having passed through countless times, comments on never noticing this aspect of their surroundings: “The pattern of the trees was spectacularly obvious, now that they were observing it, but it had always been the backdrop to Dex. The wallpaper. They’d never been looking for it. Now they couldn’t see anything else” (p. 76).
Throughout A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, Mosscap’s presence requires Dex to look at their world with fresh eyes. To recognize the ways in which the backdrop of their life is both deliberate and miraculous. Mosscap, the product of a previous era’s capitalist priorities, has its own philosophies informed by that history, its own relationship with the world that has grown independently from humanity.
Everything in the world is shaped by its surroundings, whether we see them or not. We are all of us connected. Such a realization, when one truly sits with it, is humbling.
Which brings me back to the fish.
Much of the Monk and Robot series avoids conventional ideas of conflict, though Mosscap and Dex butt heads numerous times and their arguments always make for great reading. What I mean is that conflict is internal, non-violent, and more often than not a product of Dex struggling with their own feelings.
Yet still, when Mosscap and Dex arrive at a small human settlement populated by people who culturally reject technology, I braced myself. Dex warns Mosscap that, to these humans, it is a walking embodiment of everything they disapprove of. When a local approaches them, there’s a sense that anything could happen. Surely, I reasoned, this would escalate into some kind of standoff, if not directly violent then at least tense and difficult. And the atmosphere is tense; Chambers plays with expectations exceptionally well while also managing to always exceed and upend them.
Instead of what I’d imagined, we get a wholly different (although completely tonally consistent) scenario. The trio go fishing. A conversation is head, religious debate unfolds with equal parts skepticism and humor, and Dex catches a fish that will serve as their dinner.
But first the fish has to die.
As previously stated, there is no moralizing here. Mosscap, while saddened, has no misgivings about the situation:
“How do you kill it?” A note of grief had entered its voice, but there was acceptance there, too, born out of a lifetime of watching wild things eat and be eaten. (p. 71)
But the robot’s presence means that neither Dex nor their host can view this process with the comfortable distance that all everyday tasks take on. Instead, they must sit with the fresh understanding that it is by their will alone that this living thing meets its end.
The scene takes on a layer of sorrow, the gravity that comes when you realize that life and death are always existing in the same space. That this specific example takes place in a world where sustainability is key and suffering is avoided at all costs does not lessen its impact, but instead highlights how inured one becomes when removed from this reality.
So instead, our protagonists, and we the reader, join together to acknowledge that reality, and show respect for the ending of a life:
All three sat still, and together, they held vigil as something that had never existed before and never would again ceased its struggling and came to an end. (p. 72)
So much of the Monk and Robot duology is emblematic of the saying, “it’s not the destination but the journey.” As cliché as that sentiment has become, it's worth remembering that the journey here is meant to be life. Life, in all its brief encounters and lasting relationships, its small comforts and grand wonders.
It is the great beauty and tragedy of being human that we are each aware of our impermanence and individuality. Each of us, as with everything, has never existed before. There will never be another like us for all of time. With that understanding comes fear, urgency, a desire to know that we are not squandering this fleeting time.
What I love about Becky Chambers, and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, is that with every passing chapter, every interaction between our protagonists and the people they meet, there is an undercurrent of tenderness. Dex and Mosscap do not have all the answers, no one does, no one needs to. By the end of this fragment of their journey, they are no closer to their “destination,” and that is entirely the point. Instead, they are able to listen to each other, support each other, grow and learn and take their sweet time in the process.
Chambers welcomes the reader into this place, sits with us our discomforts, our doubts, our grief, and then whispers to us that we can also take our time. The world can wait until we’re ready.
In the meanwhile, take in the view. It’s been there for you all this time.