Panga is the best of all possible worlds. Humanity has survived the climate catastrophe, narrowly averting disaster “thanks to a catalyst no one could have predicted” (p. 154), and changed for the better (the Transition). Fifty percent of the moon’s single continent is reserved for human use, fifty percent for nature, and the ocean is “barely touched” (p. 26). Guided by a pantheistic-adjacent religion, people now adapt their lives to the world, and not the other way round: Panga has only one City, “a never-ending harmony of making, doing, growing, trying, laughing, running, living” (p. 10). Its towers are “crafted from translucent casein and mycelium masonry” (p. 110), perpetually renewed or “reabsorbed into the landscape” (p. 110). Carefully tended trails allow people to journey between small, self-sustaining communities, and ensure that no damage is caused to the ecosystem beyond, a norm driven into an individual’s head “full-force by an army of parents and teachers and rangers and public service announcements and road signs” (p. 103). That is not to say, however, that Panga has given up technology: powerful handheld computers continue to play an important role in both communication and coordination, across the world and its many plural societies. There also appears to be a form of currency—pebs—although given that Panga appears to be a post-scarcity world, its exact purpose is somewhat unclear.
Panga, thus, is a world in harmony. And yet, harmony always bears within it the seeds of discord. This discord manifests itself in the form of Sibling Dex. A nameless yearning to hear the music of (extinct) crickets drives them to leave the Meadow Den Monastery in the City, and become a tea monk, traversing through the world to listen to people’s troubles, and to bring them a dose of relief through just the right concoction of tea. Dex is good at their job, and their coming a looked-for event in the communities that they serve. But even that is not enough: in their search for the music of crickets, Dex finally decides to visit the forgotten Hart’s Brow Hermitage in the Northern Wilds, where—it is believed—crickets might still exist.
The journey is a perilous one, requiring travel via pre-Transition roads through the protected wilderness into which a few have wandered by accident, and fewer returned safely. But soon, in the forest, Dex runs into Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a representative of the robots on its way to “check in” on how human beings are doing. Long years ago, on attaining consciousness, the robots had downed their tools and decided to seek their own lives in the wilderness. By the terms of the Parting Promise, the robots could return if—and in whichever manner—they chose to, but humans would not initiate contact. And by the terms of that Promise, Mosscap has volunteered to journey into human lands, and to understand human needs. Much to Dex’s initial chagrin, Mosscap offers to accompany them on their journey to the Hermitage, as part of its goal to learn more about what humans need. Yet as the journey unfolds, this “first contact” between human and robot will reveal more about them both—and the worlds they inhabit—than either expects.
Through spare description and powerful suggestion, A Psalm for the Wild-Built paints a rare—and subtle—portrait of a post-Catastrophe world, where the forking path between feral dystopia and unambiguous utopia has been resolved in favour of the latter (how that happened we are not told, but in fairness, that is not the brief of this story). Throughout the book, Becky Chambers scatters numerous clues to allow her readers to build up the mechanics of their world inside their heads: there are frequent references to repair being a building block of social life and consumption, hearkening to the modern-day “right to repair” movement that is considered to be one bulwark against extractivism. Indeed, in one of the most fascinating sections of the book, it later turns out that the robots themselves are composite objects, built out of the spare parts of predecessors that have chosen disassembly (and thus, “death”). The reference to mycelial masonry as a literal building block gestures towards the advancing science of using fungi as construction material. One wonders, of course, how the liberal provision of computers to everyone—even though each is “built to last a lifetime” (p. 39)—has been squared with the anti-extractivist philosophy of Panga. But that apart, the world of A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a de-growth world, a world where capitalism’s will-to-ceaseless-growth has been arrested and reversed by setting up a range of barriers (such as the concept of staying only on the trail when traversing between communities). To take the liberty of coining a fresh term, this is an example of “post-Anthropocene SFF” i.e. SFF that imagines a future for humanity after the Anthropocene, and shows us what it might look like.
In such a world, where the fundamental—and violent—contradictions engendered by the logic of capitalism have been resolved, the only conflicts that remain are inward ones, the stakes now internal rather than external. Dex is riven by a discontent they cannot name, a discontent that drives them to leave the society of their peers and travel alone in the forest, ostensibly to seek out extinct crickets (in this, nobody tries to stop them—humanity appears to have shed both direct and indirect coercion, as well as skewed power relations, in the post-Transition time). Dex’s meeting with Mosscap allows this conflict to project outwards: through the course of conversation with a fundamentally alien intelligence, Dex is able to articulate that their discontent is rooted in an absence of purpose; Mosscap’s bemusement—and his question about why purpose is needed when consciousness exists—is an unanswerable one.
The conundrum is potentially resolved through the prism of one of the central concepts of the book: that of remnants. Mosscap, being assembled from the (literal) bones of its predecessors, continues to bear remnants of instinctual responses: an inexplicable dread of a ruined factory, for example, from the time before the Parting Promise, when robots were no more than slave labour. Mosscap later uses the same idea to explain to Dex their latent fear of a river in the wild, but perhaps it goes even deeper: deriving a sense of purpose from the existence of conflict is itself a remnant from a previous time. With mutual aid and cooperation, no will-to-growth, and no (ostensible) need for coercion, the post-Transition era seems to have reconstituted what it means to be human. But the reconstruction is imperfect, and Dex’s discontent is therefore legible if we think of it as a remnant from a time where conflict and purpose were constitutive of each other. This is hinted—but only hinted—at one point in the story, where Dex argues that seeking a sense of purpose is simply what it means to be human, while Mosscap wonders aloud whether it is simply something that’s been taught. Through this gesture towards the nature/nurture debate, Chambers thus pushes us to think about what, ultimately, utopia might demand of us as human beings.
Many of the other issues—or problems of translation—that occur throughout the conversation between Dex and Mosscap circle back to this. For example, Mosscap’s insistence on the pronoun “it”—and of considering itself to be an object—makes Dex uneasy until Mosscap tersely says “we don’t have to fall into the same category to be of equal value” (p. 87). Once again, the deeper point is gestured at rather than stated: a critique of a teleological view of the world, where purpose is what distinguishes sentient beings from mere things. Indeed, what is striking about Chambers’ robots is that not only have they subverted the purposes for which they were created, but they have liberated themselves from needing a telos in the first place—a fundamental difference that throws up the primary barrier between Mosscap and its goal of “understanding human needs.”
A Psalm for the Wild-Built, thus, uses the device of the post-catastrophe utopia to raise several questions about the human condition. For the most part, the questions are both raised—and addressed—with subtlety. There are, however, moments of dissonance, where the book strays into the realm of the didactic. When the narrative voice—articulating itself through Dex’s interior landscape—tells us, for example, that “the good intentions of a few individuals had not been enough, could never have been enough to upend a paradigm entirely” (p. 154), we are taken directly—too directly—to contemporary debates about climate change and ethical individual consumption. Moments like this occur sporadically through the book, where, for a post-catastrophe reconstructed society, the vocabulary and ideas in Panga seem remarkably contemporary! There are also sporadic moments where the world appears to not quite hang together: I’ve highlighted a few of them above. How much information to reveal about a world is, of course, an author’s prerogative; if, however, we are told that the City is sustainable thanks to mycelium masonry, we are perhaps entitled to expect an explanation for non-extractive computers. After all, one of the fundamental debates around contemporary de-growth arguments is precisely how much we will need to give up by way of modern-day living in order to achieve sustainability. Similarly, the near-total absence of coercion seems unearned at times, almost too easy. Dex’s discontent suggests that Panga is not a perfectly harmonious society, so what is to be done when discontent expresses itself in more serious—and even violent—ways? These are not questions that need detailed answers, but to end the book having them unanswered entirely leaves us somewhat unsated.
This is not, of course, to take away from the merits of the book, which are many. Like all good science fiction, the value of A Psalm For The Wild-Built lies in the questions it raises, how it articulates them, and in the paths that it illumines—without prescribing their destinations.