Perhaps it’s the times, or perhaps it’s my specific brand of pessimism, which I don’t wish on anyone, but A Prayer for the Crown-Shy made me sad. Not tragically so, and not also without making me think, making me smile, and ultimately making me glad, but this second entry in the Monk and Robot series definitely made for more complicated reading than I was expecting.
Becky Chambers, the reigning champion of Hopepunk, has of course delivered another very smart and delightful novella. That was always going to be the case, and anyone looking for more of her trademark wisdom will certainly be satisfied by this elegant and effervescent little book. However, I live in the accelerating tire fire that is America, and the ecological utopia of Panga feels unobtainable. It’s not just that it’s out of reach in our current moment; it’s being actively thwarted. In some ways, this is the best possible moment to be reading about a society that saved itself from a very similar disaster; in other ways, it feels like a bar that’s just too high to clear.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book! It also doesn’t mean you should avoid it if you share my outlook. It may be that it brings you straightforward comfort, in which case, great! Everyone deserves comfort, and hope, and a vision of the future that doesn’t suck. But it may also be that you have more complicated feelings about it, in which case you might feel at a loss to reconcile your experience of the book to the reviews that promise it will part the clouds, save the whales, and clear up your acne.
I’m exaggerating but I’m not trying to be sarcastic here. We do need books like this! We need to see futures that aren’t terrible, we need to know what the world looks like when it’s been saved, not from the Big Bad but from ourselves, and we need to know what we can do to keep it saved. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is about the necessity of this ongoing struggle, and the joy such wrestling can bring to the people willing to engage the big questions and big answers.
It does all that and manages to remain character-driven throughout. Dex and Mosscap struggle to find their respective places in human society while remaining true to themselves, a universal struggle that Chambers makes personal and poignant. There are so many amazing scenes that it’s hard to choose one to celebrate over any of the others. Mosscap meeting a dog? The beautifully empathetic fishing trip? The brilliant discussion of healing and prosthetics as a way of understanding robotic philosophies of extinction?
But let’s talk about the time when Dex explains pebs to Mosscap. Pebs are explicitly not currency, but rather a form of collective acknowledgement of individual contribution to society. Anyone can give any number of pebs, regardless of their personal balance. If someone goes into the red, it doesn’t mean they’re in trouble, or that they’re denied services; quite the opposite, in fact. A significant deficit means that person needs help, and should be given even more attention and care. And they don’t have to “repay” that care except by becoming happy and whole members of society again, at which point they will naturally begin contributing.
I want this to be the future. I want this to work so badly, this world of collective comfort and mutual care. But this story aches in me, not because I believe it’s untrue—I really do think that at our core, people want to be part of things and contribute—but because I fear it’s untrue. What if people are as petty, venial, and pointlessly cruel as we can so amply observe? Chambers resolutely shows humans at their best, though, and to go along with her is to share in some of that hope.
There is a melancholic note to the ending, and even though it comes to rest in a similar philosophical space as A Psalm for the Wild-Built. While maintaining the stance that existence is enough, it acknowledges that philosophical stances are not the same as lived realities, and Sibling Dex, despite their ardent and heartfelt belief that there is no need to earn comfort, that it should be infinitely available to anyone at any time, does not actually feel that they deserve rest. They alone must always be contributing. I sympathize with that incessant forward motion so much, and despite the lack of solution, it did feel like a resolution for Dex to admit that. Their struggle, ironically, is the thing that made me feel the most hopeful; it made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
Mosscap also shares hesitation about the next phase of their journey, though for different reasons. It has no trouble with valuing existence for existence’s sake, but it is troubled by what it means to add to that paradigm. What happens when it wants or needs things that are idiosyncratic to itself, things that may be outside its cultural paradigm? What if it doesn’t know what it wants, but still has feelings that don’t precisely align with its thoughts or philosophy? I sympathize there, too. Even in a utopia-adjacent world, sentience is difficult. Being alive is difficult.
But along with Dex and Mosscap, you will find reasons to believe it is worth it.
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is out July 5, 2022.