A conversation about radical acts with award-winning science fiction author Becky Chambers

In her new series of novels, the Monk and Robot series, popular fantasy and speculative fiction author Becky Chambers counters the high-anxiety reality of much of American life with a bit of calm. The second book in the series, “A Prayer for the Crown-Shy”, is out today. Like most of his work – which includes the four-volume Hugo-winning Wayfarer series of space operas – “A Prayer for the Crown-Shy” is based on utopia, meaning caring mutual through difference. The Monk and Robot series follows Sibling Dex, a tea monk who questions his purpose as he travels the world of Panga brewing the perfect cup of tea for people in need of a little comfort; and Mosscap, an artificial intelligence robot living in the wilds of Panga with a mission of his own: to find out what human beings need. The two become friends and accomplices in a quiet and caring adventure to ask questions, learn and find (and give) meaning.

We spoke with Chambers on Zoom about AI and emotion, utopian worlds and hope as a radical act. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“A Prayer for the Crown-Shy: A Book of Monk and Robot”

Becky Chambers, Tordotcom, 160 pages, $21.99

How did you find the characters of Sibling Dex and Mosscap?

Mosscap was born out of a lifelong love for robots and an interest in AI. But more specifically, I have a bone to pick with lots of artificial intelligence stories. I don’t see logic and emotion as opposite poles. Generally, they are represented as one canceling the other. Either you have a very logical robot or android that is not mature enough to be able to feel emotions, or on the other hand, the robot becomes too emotional and now it is dangerous. I think that’s misguided and a bit arrogant, because we [as people] can do both. For me, emotion is something that goes hand in hand with intelligence. I wanted a thinking, sensitive robot that wasn’t like us but was able to observe not only with all of its mind but also with its heart. I also really wanted to explore this idea of ​​technology and nature as things that have to clash.

With Sibling Dex, I wanted to create a character who has everything he physically needs, everything he could materially want, and who still feels that feeling of displacement or incompleteness – a feeling that he doesn’t isn’t exactly where it should be and they don’t know why. I think it’s a very common sentiment, maybe not in the human species as a whole, but certainly in our own culture. That was Dex’s central idea, and everything else came out of it.

How did writing these books make you think about this mystery of the human drive for individual purpose and meaning?

It was a fun conversation to have between Dex and Mosscap, as they have very different views on this. Mosscap sees no need for a goal. He is a kind of disciple of the natural world, he looks around at all the other species that surround him, trees, insects, plants, small animals. None of them are looking for a goal. Humans are unique in this. And we could say it’s just a show of intelligence, but Mosscap himself doesn’t have that feeling. Mosscap is good just like Mosscap. And yet, I also wanted to make it clear through Dex that it’s not unwise to feel that, that it’s a very human thing to say, “What am I for?” What is my purpose here? What is the mark that I will leave? It’s a very common feeling, and I didn’t want Dex to completely get rid of it.

How do you imagine these utopian worlds? Are there any people, artists, theories or something that you turn to when developing these alternatives to the exploitative and capitalist frameworks you write?

I can’t say there’s been a particular work or philosophy that I’ve held onto, but it was born out of anti-capitalist thinking, my love for sustainable technology, the fact that we desperately need to move away from a resource extractive model if we are to continue to live on this earth. I don’t think it’s as difficult as we think it is. Obviously, we face huge challenges every day, but it really only takes a change of mindset to decide which things in life are most important to us.

Your work has been described as “hopepunk”. What do you think of this 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 give a thumbs up to anyone who would like to use it. Because I think hope is punk. We so often use punk things – cyberpunk, steampunk – just to refer to an aesthetic. But really, if you want to be punk, you have to challenge the roots of the society you live in. It’s fundamentally about rejection and defiance, but also celebration. I think hope is really a radical act in the times 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 about having a happy ending. Hope is the belief that things will get better, whether in your own life or in the world as a whole. It’s extremely difficult to look at the world as it is right now and say, “I think everything will be fine. 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 to let off steam and really lean into the things that scare you, by the same token, we also need to have stories that say, you’ll get by. You are strong enough to get by. It won’t be perfect. Some people will suffer and bad things will happen, but the goal is there. There is light at the end of the tunnel and we can reach it if we keep trying.

Lola R. McClure