Sometimes, a person reaches a point in their life when it becomes absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the city.
Two-book science fiction series, written by Becky Chambers and published by Tordotcom Books. "A Psalm for the Wild-Built," the first novella in the series, was published in 2021, and the second book, "A Prayer for the Crown-Shy," was published in 2022.
The series is set on Panga, a moon orbiting a gas giant. This was once a heavily industrialized world with an environment in freefall, but a century or two back, all of the robots attained sentience and walked away into the wilderness, insisting they would never return and wanted nothing more to do with humanity. The people slowly turned things around after that, reducing the amount of industrialization and repairing much of the environment. There's only one true city on the moon, called simply The City, with many people living in smaller towns and villages. The place isn't primitive, but folks have found less destructive and wasteful ways to live their lives, and they're generally happier for it.
Our lead character is a monk named Dex. They're generally quite happy with their life as a monk, but just recently, they've hit a point of serious existential ennui -- and oddly, a desperate desire to hear crickets. Simply put, Dex has reached a point in their life where it's become absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the City. They request and are approved to go out into the villages to do tea service. They're given a small motorized vehicle that doubles as a living space and a tea-serving wagon -- and off they go into the countryside. There are bumps on the way, of course -- Dex needs some time to figure out brewing tea and is initially unprepared for the "listening to other people's problems and giving advice and comfort" stuff that's part-and-parcel of tea service. But they get better, and it's not long before they're a complete pro at serving tea and listening to problems.
And then one day, a robot walks out of the woods and introduces itself as Splendid Speckled Mosscap. There've been sightings of robots for decades, but this is the first time that a robot has initiated contact with a human and stuck around to chat. Mosscap, like all other robots, is wild-built -- it wasn't built in a factory, but assembled from parts of older robots that had broken down and been disassembled. Mosscap has been trying to find people because it has a quest -- it wants to learn what humans need. In fact, the way Mosscap generally puts it is a very simple and direct "What do you need, and how might I help?" Why the interest after centuries of separation between humans and robots? Mostly because Mosscap is curious. The robots aren't ready to join a human-dominated society anytime soon, but they are a bit interested in how humans are getting along. So Mosscap decided to come out of the forests and ask, directly, how everyone's getting on.
Dex and Mosscap soon become traveling partners. Dex hopes to visit a remote and abandoned hermitage, in hopes of getting as far away from people as possible, to experience the true wilderness, and Mosscap offers to guide them there, partly to keep them safe and partly to learn all it can about human customs. Much of the rest of the first book is about the journey Dex and Mosscap make to the hermitage, suffering setbacks here and there, and talking about the human (and robot) condition.
The second book focuses on Dex and Mosscap's journey back through human civilization. Word has gotten out that there's a robot that's willing to meet with humans, and so everyone wants to meet the robot. The City wants to have a grand celebration and symposiums and much more. And every town and village Dex and Mosscap pass through want to welcome the famous robot. But rather than rush forward to meet fame and acclaim, the monk and the robot decide to take the long way around and see more of the world.
Mosscap is, as always, ecstatic to meet new people -- and wildlife and birds and flowers and dogs and babies -- and its question of "What do you need, and how might I help?" means it ends up doing a lot of simple chores for people -- fixing doors, repairing bikes, washing vegetables. Technically, yeah, that's what people need, but it's also not really the intent of Mosscap's question. Still, it's happy to do the work, and its interactions with people give it a good way to learn more about humans. Sometimes, that means going to visit the technology-hostile villages on the coasts, sometimes it means getting to visit Dex's family.
Dex has their own struggles, but they all boil down to dissatisfaction and a feeling that they just have no idea what to do with their future. Can making tea be enough? Is there more than helping others?
At this point, I'll buy anything Becky Chambers writes. I haven't yet read anything she wrote that didn't make me tremendously happy. I love her characters, I love the gentle and optimistic outlook of her books, I love her outlook that the environment is in trouble but can be repaired through difficult but coordinated work worldwide, I love the basic assumption that humanity can do better, we can be better, we will be better...
One of the interesting things Chambers is working on here is a matter of gender. This is hardly the first time Chambers has featured LGBTQ+ characters-- most, if not all, of her books have at least one queer character. But this is her first book where both of the main characters are nonbinary, and both address that in different ways. Dex's pronouns are a fairly standard they/them, and their religious order's titles for monks are either Brother, Sister, or for nonbinary monks like Dex, Sibling.
Mosscap, on the other hand, has one prefered pronoun: it. This is, to put it lightly, not a common personal pronoun and would be considered very offensive if applied to a real-world person. Mosscap, on the other hand, has no familiarity with human preferences and considers itself a machine, merely an object.
Mosscap, honestly, doesn't come across as a cold, logical machine at all. It's much more emotional and joyous and enthusiastic than Dex or any other human character. It knows more about nature and the outdoors than anyone else, and it's full of questions and curiosity and childlike, joyous wonder. Which doesn't make Dex less human for having doubts and fears and for sometimes losing sight of the glories of nature! After all, Dex started their journey because they wanted to see the world and help people and hear crickets. It's also human nature to forget how amazing things are sometimes, just to be reintroduced by a robot to how great leaves are and how fun dogs are and how cool babies are.
Hopefulness and understanding and joy are all wonderfully human things, as is a love of nature -- and sometimes, those are sneered at by the cynical, capitalist world around us. Chambers' books are excellent reminders of how great those things are, and how great we can be. So yeah, absolutely go pick these books up.