My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've read several of Becky Chambers' books in the past, and they've all had the same tone as this book: laid-back character-based stories. She simply doesn't do galaxy-spanning problems and extinction-level stakes. Because of this, her full-length novels tend to be warm, fuzzy and meh, at least for me. This novella, however, I really liked.
It's a simple, straightforward story of Sibling Dex the traveling tea monk and the robot Mosscap they run across in the wilderness. (As an aside, the job of "traveling tea monk" sounds like the coolest thing ever--Dex makes the rounds of a regular circuit of towns and villages, serves custom tea blends and listens to people's problems. They're actually more of a traveling psychologist. They also live in what's called an "ox-bike wagon," which as described sounds like a double-decker tiny house on a bicycle frame.) This all takes place on Panga, the moon of a gas giant apparently settled so long ago by humans that Earth is never mentioned. The most important point in Panga's history is what happened several hundred years ago when all their factory robots suddenly "woke up," evolving to sapience, asked to be left alone by human society and walked into the wilderness, never to return. This apparently sparked a bit of an environmental revolution on Panga, as fifty percent of the moon's single continent is set aside to remain unspoiled wilderness, and their society shifts from growth-oriented capitalism to an eco-friendly, sustainable development.
All this backstory makes for some fairly complex worldbuilding, but it's unobtrusive and takes a back seat to the two characters, Dex and Mosscap. Dex is a restless dreamer, dissatisfied first by their life in the monastery and then their work as a traveling tea monk, though they admit they are very good at it. Mosscap was chosen by its fellow robots to contact humans again after a two-hundred-year absence, and ask them a deceptively simple question: "What do you need, and how might I help?"
This is a quiet, calm, soothing story built around Dex's existential crises and Mosscap's quest to discover what humans have become since the robots left. It's a couple of incidents and a series of philosophical conversations along their journey, but because the main characters are so well drawn, nothing about this story is boring despite the lack of life-altering stakes. The dedication reads, "For anybody who could use a break," and that's what this is. Drink some custom tea blend, listen to Mosscap opine about the purpose of life, and relax. Tomorrow you can save the world.
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