Tag Archives: Utopia

Mending Fences: A Review of A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers book cover. Image on cover is a close-up painting of a covered wagon travelling through a forest. Title: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

Author: Becky Chambers

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: July 12, 2022

Genres: Science Fiction, Utopia

Length: 160 pages

Source: I borrowed it from my local library.

Rating: 5 Stars

Blurb:

After touring the rural areas of Panga, Sibling Dex (a Tea Monk of some renown) and Mosscap (a robot sent on a quest to determine what humanity really needs) turn their attention to the villages and cities of the little moon they call home.

They hope to find the answers they seek, while making new friends, learning new concepts, and experiencing the entropic nature of the universe.

Becky Chambers’s new series continues to ask: in a world where people have what they want, does having more even matter?

Review:

Content Warning: Theology and religion, but they share little in common with any theologies or religions of our world. I will discuss these topics in my review.

What could be more cozy or wholesome than a Tea Monk and a robot going on a road trip in a utopian world?

I am once again going to need to tread carefully in my review in order to avoid spoilers, but I did want to talk about the theological discussions and religious practices in this universe. Ms. Chambers created such a gentle framework for those beliefs that I was quickly able to relax and follow the characters’ thought processes as they compared beliefs and asked intelligent questions of those who disagreed with them. You should know that Sibling Dex loves and accepts everyone. Their beliefs are sacred to them, but they would never use them against those who have other beliefs or no beliefs at all. Don’t be nervous about reading this if you’re like me and generally avoid stories about religion or theology based on previous negative experiences with those topics in our world. It was important part of the plot for sure, but there wasn’t a single ounce of unkindness in Sibling Dex’s worldview.

My review of A Psalm for the Wild-Built gently criticized the loose plot structure of that book. I’m happy to report that the plot was thicker in this one. Yes, it retained it’s meandering philosophical and religious discussions that are so important to Sibling Dex and Mosscap’s character development, but they faced more conflicts and obstacles to their goals this time around as well. It was fascinating to me to see how they handled abrupt changes to their travelling plans and interactions with other living things that didn’t always go as predicted. This was exactly what they both needed to in order to show the audience how they’d changed as a result as their earlier adventures.

It was exciting to see how the world building was expanded. I finally learned more about how the villages and cities in this world are connected to each other and what their relationships with one another are like. Yes, I wanted to dive even deeper into this topic, but it made sense to stop where we did. I mean, it’s not like I welcome friends to Canada by going on a long monologue about my country’s history, culture, or social customs before asking if they want to try poutine. The important parts are shared as they come up in conversation, so it made total sense for the author to do the same here.

The character development was once again handled beautifully. Sibling Dex and Mosscap changed in all sorts of interesting ways as a result of their journey and their friendship. I chuckled as their assumptions about what humans or robots should be like occasionally bumped up against realities that bore little resemblance to what either of these individuals thought was going to happen. While I did find myself wishing the last scene had been given a little more time to flourish, I’m betting that it was written that way on purpose in order to set up whatever comes next.

This is the second instalment in the Monk & Robot series. I strongly recommend reading it all in order as there were several important scenes in A Psalm for the Wild-Built that are critical to understanding the character development.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy made me yearn for more.

Gentle Science Fiction: A Review of A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Note: I’m (finally) reviewing the first book in the Monk & Robot series today and will review the sequel next week. Stay tuned! 

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers book cover. Image on cover shows a drawing of a robot, a person pedaling their travelling home, many plants, and winding paths on it. Title: A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot #1)

Author: Becky Chambers

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: July 13, 2021

Genres: Science Fiction, Utopia

Length: 160 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library.

Rating: 4 Stars

Blurb:

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers’s delightful new Monk and Robot series gives us hope for the future.

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

Becky Chambers’s new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?

Review:

Content Warning: Theology. It is nothing like the religions or theologies of our world, though, which I will explain in my review.

If peaceful science fiction is your thing, look no further.

Sibling Dex was one of the most unusual characters I’ve met in a long time. They were an agender tea monk who had already changed their occupation several times and were still not satisfied with it. The desire to learn more about the world was relentless in them even though humanity had created a utopian existence in which half of the land was reserved for wildlife sanctuaries and the other half was carefully managed to provide for everyone’s basic needs. I was intrigued by how this character reacted the changes they brought upon themselves as well as the ones they never could have predicted.

You may have noticed that I haven’t discussed the plot itself in this review. I’m purposefully writing this very carefully in order to avoid any spoilers, but I also want potential readers to know that the plot wasn’t as well-formed as I would have liked it to be. Sibling Dex went on a journey into the wilderness to find answers to their existential questions, but that storyline never quite coalesced in the way I hoped it would. As this appears to be the beginning of a series, I’m hoping that the sequel or sequels will be more assertive in seeking out answers for this character and giving them more conflict to deal with. I loved meeting them and having such a gentle introduction to their unique world, but I was a bit disappointed by how everything suddenly ended for them in the final scene with so many questions still left unanswered.

This story includes numerous references to religion and philosophy, but they bear little if any resemblance to what people in our world think of when they use those terms. Yes, Sibling Dex was a monk as I mentioned earlier, but their religious beliefs and practices were almost wholly centred on their own behaviour as opposed to worrying about what others did. You will find no threats of eternal punishment, long lists of rules to follow, or harsh judgements of non-believers here. That wasn’t how Sibling Dex behaved about at all, and I found it incredibly refreshing. They simply wanted to be the best monk they could be, and their journey was in part related to how their faith and their understanding of philosophy might be able to help them figure out what to do next with their restless soul.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built was a breath of fresh air.

Hopeful Science Fiction: Woman on the Edge of Time

Last month, I blogged about my desire to step back from the dystopian genre and read hopeful science fiction instead.

The rules were simple. I didn’t require a story to start out in a hopeful or happy place, but I did want to read scifi that ended that way.

Since then, I’ve started to compile a list of books that fit this description. I’ll be talking about one of them today and plan to gradually blog about the rest in the future. If you have recommendations for this series, I’d sure like to hear them. Leave a comment below or send me message about it on Twitter.

Woman on the Edge of Time

Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time was first published in 1976. It was about Consuelo Ramos, a woman whose life had been forever changed by poverty, mental illness, prejudice, and violence.

Nothing I’m about to say is a spoiler. All of it was mentioned in the blurb for this book, and there are many plots twists and important details from later chapters that I’ll leave up to you to discover for yourselves.

I should warn you that the beginning of this book was filled with a great deal of pain. Consuelo’s life had been incredibly difficult for many years before the audience met her. She’d made choices that seriously harmed other people, and she’d been on the receiving end of other people’s terrible decisions as well. There were times when it read much more like a dystopia than anything else before the plot veered into other directions.

If you press forward through the dark beginning, though, you’ll begin to see what I’m talking about when I refer to this as a piece of hopeful science fiction.

Shortly before involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital early on in this story, Consuelo began telepathically communicating with Luciente, a person who was living in an utopian society in 2137.

As their unlikely friendship blossomed, Consuelo eventually travelled through time to visit Luciente and see how people lived in the 2100s. It was like nothing Consuelo had ever seen before.

In Luciente’s world, there was no poverty, racism, sexism, or violence. No one ever went hungry or was denied urgent medical treatment due to their lack of ability to pay for it. Everyone was given the opportunity to chart the course of their own lives regardless of who they were or what they’d previously decided to do with their energy and time. As long as it didn’t harm anyone else, you could do virtually anything you desired with your time, from raising a family to making art to experimenting with new ways of growing crops.

This wasn’t the only future world Consuelo visited, however. She later saw a dystopian society where the bodies and minds of poor people were used as a commodity by the wealthy. It was the opposite of the place Luciente lived in every way you could imagine. Roles were rigidly determined by who your parents were, and there was no way to switch from one part of that society to another. A person’s time was never their own. There was always someone looking over your shoulder and telling you what you must do next.

Which Future Will Be Ours?

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this tale was how much time it spent explaining why Consuelo had been chosen to see and interact with these two very different versions of the future of humanity. She wasn’t a passive player in these trips by any means. Her presence made a difference in ways she couldn’t even begin to imagine so long as she was stuck in the psychiatric facility.

As Luciente would tell her over and over again, the decisions Consuelo made in 1976 were going to play a critical role in which version of the future came to pass. The thought of someone as socially marginalized and powerless as Consuelo actually being the key to changing the fate of the entire world tickled my imagination. I’ve almost never seen anything like it before.

Most science fiction and fantasy heroes that I’ve read about have had at least a few advantages in life, whether it’s through being born with special powers or being apprenticed to someone who could teach them the skills they needed to defeat even their most powerful enemies.

The fact that Consuelo was expected to save the world without any magical abilities, mystical objects, all-knowing mentors, trusty sidekicks, or any other real sources of help in her battle made it impossible for me to stop reading. I had to know which version of the future would come to pass and if Consuelo would be able to improve the circumstances of her own life in the 1970s as well.

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

With apologies to Emily Dickinson, I loved this story’s approach to the concept of hope.

When I first began researching possibilities for this series, I wondered how easy it would be to find hopeful examples in a genre that has so often assumed the worst case scenario is the one worth writing and thinking about. The dystopian sub-genre has become so popular these days that I knew I’d have to do some digging to find characters who didn’t live in that kind of world.

Since I’m also not the kind of reader who usually seeks out tales that attempt to be hopeful by brushing over – or even simply ignoring-  difficult topics like racism and sexism, my other concern was that I’d be left with stories that were hopeful only for readers who were able to suspend their disbelief and enter an imaginary world where no one ever dealt with serious, real world issues.

The beautiful thing about Woman on the Edge of Time was how it found hope even in the midst of all of the prejudice Consuelo fought against during her life. Her determination to radically improve the future for the sake of every person who had been or will be born was rooted in part in her hope that all forms of bigotry could be vanquished for good if she made the right decisions.

Final Notes

There are so many other things I want to say about this book, but I don’t want to give away spoilers about it for anyone who hasn’t read it before. If you have read it, I’d be happy to discuss it in much greater detail somewhere other than the comment section of this post.

Do keep in mind that this tale has many twists and turns along the way to the final scene. It’s not something I’d recommend to anyone who needs to avoid any references at all to complex topics like abuse or how destructive habits can be passed down from one generation to the next. Consuelo and many of the other characters had many difficult experiences in their lives. This wasn’t the sort of universe where someone swoops in and saves the good guys in the nick of time before anything terrible happened to them.

These characters knew more than their fair share of pain, but all of the hope they found along the way more than made up for it in my mind.

What hopeful science fiction stories have you been reading recently?

 

No More Dystopias: A Hopeful Science Fiction Reading Challenge

 I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty tired of the bleak, dystopian themes in a lot of modern science fiction.

For example, I used to be a huge fan of The Walking Dead. The idea of struggling to keep   one’s children alive in such a dangerous setting was appealing when I first began reading the original graphic novels before the television show was created.

Most previous zombie movies and novels I’d heard of had killed off their child characters pretty early on, so I was curious to see how Rick, the protagonist, and the other parents in this universe would break with this tradition.

While there were many things I enjoyed about The Walking Dead early on, the graphic, relentless violence and catastrophic loss of hope for key characters eventually lead me to stop watching and reading it. It was all too much for me.

I do read recaps of what is currently going on in that universe every so often. If it eventually ends on an uplifting note, I might even go back and catch up on everything I’ve missed.

For now, though, I need a very long break from these kinds of tales. The news is already overflowing with stories about miserable things happening to good people through no fault of their own. When I read fiction these days, I’m now looking for an escape from injustices that are never made right again.

One of my goals for 2018 is to find, read, and then eventually compile a long list of science fiction tales that end on a hopeful note. This post is the beginning of that journey, and I’m tentatively planning to write an entire series of posts on this topic as I find books, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment that belong in it.

What It Won’t Be

When I say I want hopeful science fiction, I don’t mean that I want to avoid serious or difficult subject matter altogether.

There may very well be wars, battles, or other violent scenes in the stuff I read for this series.

The beginnings could include descriptions of places that are no one’s idea of a pleasant place to live. I won’t necessarily be turned off by an opening scene that sounds dystopian so long as the narrator doesn’t dwell there for every single scene from that point until the end.

The good guys might not always make the right decisions. It’s okay with me if they occasionally say or do things that deeply irritate me. In fact, I strongly prefer characters who are rough around the edges as long as they’re not antiheroes.

An occasional moment of despair is completely understandable, but I don’t want to read about or watch anyone be dragged from one traumatic event or response to the next with no end in sight.

Some of the stuff I add to this list could very well include themes related to any number of different types of prejudice, from homophobia to racism to sexism.

If a key main character must die at some point to further the plot or fulfill his or her destiny, I will accept it. (See also: Harry Potter).

What It Will Be

What I will require from these books, though, is hope.

They definitely don’t have to act Pollyannaish, but the characters should have a optimistic approach to their quest or mission most of the time.

When something terrible happens, it should be written into the plot for a specific reason that will be revealed to the audience sooner rather than later.

The good guys should win in the end.

The storylines should end on a positive note.

Will You Join Me?

You might have noticed that I haven’t listed any specific titles yet here.

That was done on purpose because:

  1. I’m still researching titles that will fit my criteria, and
  2. I wanted to get reader feedback first without influencing your suggestions for me.

There are some very knowledgable and well-read people who follow this blog. If you have any suggestions of what to add to this list, will you share them?

If you’re ready for some hopeful stories, will you join me? I can’t wait to share my ideas with you as well!