This launch of a new series, Monk & Robot, by Hugo awardee Chambers, charms from the outset. A non-binary monk, Sibling Dex, decides to leave their city monastic life as a gardener to explore outer provincial areas and get closer to nature. “They” (Dex is referred to as they/them/their) adopts a traditional role of a tea monk: offering tea, conversation, consolation, and a brief respite for the weary. Sibling Dex concocts special herbal tea blends along with sweet honey and goat’s milk, taking off in a specially constructed tea cart powered by a bicycle and with enough high-tech add-ons to double as a home on the road. Sibling Dex embarks on a repeating loop of villages offering a tea service and gradually building a devoted, grateful following.
While the story hinges on old-fashioned charm of a peddler on the road blended in with a devoted monk serving highly localized communities, the story has a strong blend of both high tech, sci fi and fantasy thrown into the mix. For instance, Sibling Dex’s cart has carefully concealed high tech accessories from rechargeable batteries and lifestyle and cooking gadgets to a hand-held computer with strong built-in wifi.
One day, fed up with the monotony of routine and still feeling removed from the wilderness, Dex decides to enter territory that has been set aside, preserved from human habitation. Dex follows an old asphalt road, strewn with fallen trees and buckling from decay, in search of a lost monastery and hopefully the sound of crickets which has proved elusive in the populated provinces. (There’s talk of a pre- and post-transition that led to some species deaths, but that remains unexplained.)
While forging his way through the brush, Dex startles to see an 8-foot-tall robot approaching him. Backstory: several centuries prior, Factory Robots gained self-awareness, rebelled, and sought their independence from humanity. They promptly took their leave from humanity, retreated to the wilderness, and have not been spotted since.
The robot, Mosscap, approaching Sibling Dex has sent himself on a quest to check in on behalf of the robots as to the state of humanity. He opens his conversation with Dex by inquiring “What do humans need?” Turns out that the answer is a multi-layered and complex for humans as it is for robots. The ensuing, funny and endearing conversation between Dex and Mosscap on the deeper meaning of life and their budding of a friendship becomes the transcendent focus of this charming book.
Thanks to Netgalley for an advance reader’s copy.