The Cosy Theology of Monk and Robot

We are the work of the Parents.

We do the work of the Children.

Without the use of constructs, you will unravel few mysteries.

Without knowledge of mysteries, your constructs will fail.

Find the strength to pursue both, for these are our prayers.

And to that end, welcome comfort, for without it, you cannot stay strong.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (2022)

Becky Chambers’ novel A Psalm for the Wild-Built, first in the Monk and Robot series, is dedicated to “anyone who could use a break”.

Chambers has been known for writing “cosy sci-fi” even before this book: oriented around humanistic details and personal stakes, and often leaving readers just… feelin’ good. Monk and Robot is my first Chambers series, and I can’t help but feel like that “cosy” label fits. From literally before page 1, comfort, cosiness, and self-care is built into this story. Not only that, but comfort, cosiness, and self-care are built into the story’s world—chiefly shining through in, of all things, its fictional system of religion.

When you think of a monk, what do you picture? Thanks to popular culture, my immediate mental image is pretty Christian and pretty medieval: brown robes, stone monasteries, illuminated manuscripts, deep chanting. I also picture… discomfort, whether that’s denying oneself pleasures or, at the extreme end, self-flagellation, which a lot of Hollywood takes on monastic living seem to insist everybody does, all the time and in the middle of hallways*. Accurate? Probably not. Insensitive and reductive? Almost certainly. The realism of these depictions isn’t really what I’m here to talk about; more that notion that religious devotion is often shorthanded with suffering.

Sibling Dex, the monk protagonist of the Monk and Robot books, is the complete opposite of this, in a way that made me blink and really assess all my assumptions about… well, monks, which I realised were largely informed by the thought process above. Now, I don’t have the capacity to argue that Chambers is setting out to destabilise the above clichés about monastic life. I don’t have the experience, the faith, nor the knowledge of literary history. But I wanted to open with this because it underpins one of the reasons I find these books so interesting. Dex is a monk, but their devotion is defined and depicted not through their suffering but through them having a nice time.

Sibling Dex, you see, is a monk of Allalae, the god of Small Comforts. On the moon of Panga, the dominant faith system is worship of the Six. The pantheon consists of three Parent Gods—Trikilli, of the Threads, Grylom, of the Inanimate, and Bosh, of the Cycle—and three Child Gods—Chal, of Constructs, Samafar, of Mysteries, and Allalae, of Small Comforts. Allalae comes in last on that list (as if appears at the beginning of Book 2, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy) but don’t let that fool you. Small Comforts are an integral part of the function of this very practical sci-fi world.

The backstory of the story-world is thus: generations ago, the robot workforce collectively gained sentience, and politely set down their tools and wandered off into the wilderness. Since then, Panga has been re-wilded, with its inhabitants striving for a more ethical and sustainable balance between technology and nature. Out into this world goes Sibling Dex, newly retrained as a tea monk: tasked with travelling between Panga’s settlements offering hot drinks and solace to anyone they meet. It is Dex’s holy duty to comfort people, but it’s also Dex’s holy duty to be comfortable.

Far from living in harsh conditions, Dex’s travelling caravan is fitted with what sounds like the comfiest bed on the planet. Far from being celibate, Dex refers casually to lovers and hook-ups. Far from associating virtue with denying oneself pleasure, spiritual devotion to Allalae is intrinsically interlinked with having a good time. It sounds sort of silly, boiled down to the details—sleeping on fluffy pillows, having a love life, and serving people tea? Come on—but in this narrative world Chambers has created, there is nothing more important.

Worship of Allalae is not some hedonistic fringe cult. In the theological system that drives social life on Panga, Small Comforts are integral to the cycle of life. Farmers, doctors, mechanics, scientists, artisans, all the people who make the moon go—all the people whose work falls under the domain of the other Child Gods—need to take time out to come to Allalae to replenish. Even if it’s as simple as drinking some hot tea for ten minutes and chatting about their worries, it can rejuvenate them physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and get them back on their feet.

Seeing this in motion, seeing how important comfort is, both to individual lives and to the function of society, is what called Dex to Allalae in the first place. In Allalae’s temple, Dex felt respected, listened to, and like their problems were real and as heavy as they felt. The catharsis of simply being validated and given an official, sanctified space to breathe, rest, and sip something hot… again, it sounds so simple laid out like this, but Dex’s narration emphasises the life-altering power of this sweet simplicity.

There’s a lot to talk about in Monk and Robot: the imaginative integration of tech and nature, the hopeful picture it builds of a post-industrial future, how much I love Mosscap the robot and its philosophical discussions with Dex, and indeed how much I love the casual non-binary representation from both the monk and robot. But when I finished A Psalm for the Wild-Built, what really struck me, stuck with me, was this emphasis on comfort and care woven through the whole product.

The soft, detail-oriented prose that draws you in and invites you to feel the softness of the blankets, smell the aroma of the floral teas. The personal stakes and the fact that the climax is simply a conversation—a conversation with a deeply kind philosophical outcome that seems to speak directly to the reader and ask them to not be so harsh on themselves. The dedication, of course! And, underlining all of this, providing the backdrop and crucially setting the stage: the worldbuilding itself.

Chambers has constructed a setting and a theological system that points the whole story towards the importance of comfort. Small comforts, too—these things we might take for granted or brush off as not having enough time for? A nice meal that you didn’t have to cook yourself, a hot shower, a good night’s sleep? These things have a god and a dedicated group of disciples. This is a world that acknowledges that comfort is integral to the functioning of society, and that, to a degree, comfort itself is holy.

I’m sure it’s not a wild suggestion that our modern, real world is rather obsessed with progress and productivity. Yes, we have a whole insidious industry trying to monetise the idea of “self-care”, but it’s easier said than done to actually take a moment to breathe, offer yourself something nice, and just be comfortable. What a radical experiment, then, to be transported to a sci-fi setting where taking a break is not only encouraged but built into the life cycle, built into the faith system, built into social expectations.

It’s part of the escapism of the series, I think: it presents you not just with a fun little adventure through a solarpunk wilderness with a robot buddy, but with a social backdrop in which taking care of yourself is one of the most important things you can do. Sometimes, when spec fic plays around with radical alternate worlds, it can do so in as simple and effective a way as asking you to take a rest.

Now, if you’ll excuse me… I’m going to take half an hour, boil the kettle, sit in the sun, and finish A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. It’s what Sibling Dex would want me to do. Yes, I have other things to do today. Everything else? Everything else can come after that. Breathe in, and out. Come back recharged. Welcome comfort, for without it, you cannot stay strong.

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*I know there are a lot of examples of this, but I’m thinking, specifically, of an episode of the (bear with me) Friday the 13th TV show, which has nothing to do with the slasher movies and instead follows two cousins who have inherited a cursed antique shop. In one episode, they have to infiltrate a monastery to steal back a demonic quill pen, and when they’re being toured around the old building they walk past a guy whipping himself. You know, to set the scene. That’s what monks do, right?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Cosy Theology of Monk and Robot

  1. Caitlin Stern

    I checked these books out of the library, but I definitely need to own them, so I can reread.
    Comfort is important. Sometimes we need reminding.

  2. I find your comment about how you heard monastic life and thought suffering super interesting because they’re so different from my own. Maybe because I am Catholic and as a Catholic, I’ve been made to think about whether I had a call to join the orders, I’ve met monks, I’ve done retreats in monasteries, I follow nuns on social media. For me, thinking about monastic communities is cosy, it’s about being a tightly knit community. The coolest people who are part of the Church are nuns.
    Now you’ve made me want to read that book. 😀

    • That’s so interesting – thank you for sharing that insight! Like I said, most of my exposure is via external channels like popular culture, which is obviously not always accurate. It’s cool to hear that nuns are cool!

  3. Pingback: BEES?! September ’22 Roundup | The Afictionado

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