In her new series of novellas, the Monk and Robot series, popular fantasy and speculative fiction author Becky Chambers counters the high-anxiety reality of much of American life with some quiet. The second book in the series, “A Prayer for the Crown-Shy,” is out today. Like most of her work — which includes the Hugo Award-winning four-volume Wayfarer series of space operas — “A Prayer for the Crown-Shy” is based in the utopian, which is to say mutual care across difference. The Monk and Robot series follows Sibling Dex, a tea monk questioning their purpose as they travel the world of Panga making the perfect cup of tea for people who need a bit of comfort; and Mosscap, an artificial intelligence robot living in the Panga wilds and on a mission of its own: to find out what it is that human beings need. The two become friends and accomplices in a quiet and kindhearted adventure to ask questions, learn and find (and make) meaning.
We spoke with Chambers over Zoom about AI and emotion, utopian worlds and hope as a radical act. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come up with the characters of Sibling Dex and Mosscap?
Mosscap is born out of a lifelong love of robots and an interest in AI. But specifically, I have a bone to pick with a lot of artificial intelligence stories. I don’t see logic and emotion as polar opposites. Commonly, they are depicted as one cancels out the other. You either have a highly logical robot or android who is not mature enough to be able to experience emotion, or on the flip side, the robot gets too emotional, and now they’re dangerous. I think that’s misguided and a bit arrogant, because we [as people] can do both. To me, emotion is something that comes hand-in-hand with intelligence. I wanted a thinking, feeling robot that is not like us but still is capable of observing with not just their whole mind but their heart as well. I also really wanted to dig into that idea of technology and nature as things that have to clash.
With Sibling Dex, I wanted to create a character who has everything that they physically need, everything that they materially could want, and yet still feels this sense of displacement or a lack of completeness — a feeling that they’re not exactly where they should be and they don’t know why. I think this is a very common sentiment, maybe not in the human species as a whole, but definitely within our own culture. That was the core idea for Dex, and everything else grew out of that.
How has writing these books made you think about that mystery of the human drive for individual purpose and meaning?
It was a fun conversation to have between Dex and Mosscap, because they have very different takes on this. Mosscap does not see a need for purpose. It being a disciple of sorts of the natural world, it looks around at all the other species around it, trees, bugs, plants, small animals. None of them are seeking purpose. Humans are unique in this. And we could argue that it’s just a manifestation of intelligence, but Mosscap itself doesn’t have that feeling. Mosscap is good exactly how Mosscap is. And yet I also wanted to make it clear through Dex that it’s not misguided to feel that way, that it is a very human thing to say, “What am I for? What is my purpose here? What is the mark I’m going to leave?” This is a very common feeling, and I didn’t want Dex to shed that entirely.
How do you imagine these utopian worlds? Are there people, artists, theories or something that you turn to when you’re developing these alternatives to exploitative and capitalist frameworks that you write?
I can’t say that there was any one work or one particular philosophy that I grabbed hold of, but it was very much born out of anti-capitalist thought, out of my love for sustainable technology, the fact that we desperately need to move away from an extractive model of resources if we want to continue living on this earth. I don’t think it’s as difficult as we think it is. Obviously there are enormous challenges we face every day, but it really just takes a shift in mindset of deciding what are the things in life that are most important to us.
Your work has been described as “hopepunk.” What do you think about that categorization, and more broadly, what does the word “hope” mean to you in your writing?
I didn’t choose hopepunk for my work, but I like it and I give a thumbs-up to anybody who would like to use it. Because I do think that hope is punk. We so often use punk things — cyberpunk, steampunk — to just refer to an aesthetic. But really if you’re going to be punk, you have to be challenging the roots of the society you live in. It is fundamentally about rejection and about defiance, but also about celebration. I think that hope truly is a radical act in the times that we live in. Hope is not the same as optimism, hope is not the same as putting on a pair of rose-colored glasses, hope is not always having a happy ending. Hope is the belief that things will get better, whether that be in your own life or in the world as a whole. It’s enormously difficult to look at the world as it is right now and say, “I think it’s going to be OK.” But it’s something I do anyway, something I challenge myself to do.
As much as it is necessary to write cautionary tales, to write scary stories, to be able just to vent and to really lean into the things you’re scared about, by the same token, we also have to have stories that say, You’re going to get out of this. You’re strong enough to get out of this. It’s not going to be perfect. Some people are going to suffer, and bad things are going to happen, but the goal is there. There is light at the end of the tunnel and we can reach it if we just keep trying.