Genre fiction is often best at tackling the really big questions. There’s something about a distance from the everyday world that allows a better perspective on who we are, how we function as a community, what it means to be alive. A Prayer For the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers is the second novella in the Monk and Robot science fiction series from the American author, and a shining example of the ‘hopepunk’ sub-genre, which postulates a positive future for humanity.
The book is set on a moon called Panga, where a human civilisation lives in peace, having survived a catastrophic industrial age. Many years before, robots gained sentience and disappeared into the forests and no one has seen one since, until now.
Sibling Dex is a travelling tea-monk, journeying across the land providing a hot brew and a listening ear, when he meets Mosscap, a robot determined to find out what humans want in life. The first book in the series dealt with finding your place in the world and this sequel delves deeper into that question. This is essentially a buddy road trip, Chambers creating a wonderful energy between Dex and Mosscap, a mixture of frustration and warmth, as they head for the city taking in different village communities on the way.
But underneath the warmth and fuzz is a serious existential enquiry. What does it mean to be human or robot? What do we want from our connections with the universe? Seen through a robot’s eyes, the conventions even of this respectful and ecological society can seem bizarre. I was close to tears a couple of times, once when Dex and Mosscap went fishing, once when they walked through the woods. This kind of writing is deceptively simple, but it takes great skill to write deeply about such seemingly ordinary things and fill them with wide-eyed wonder. A stunning book.
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