2022’s A Prayer for The Crown-shy is the second volume in Becky Chamber’s Monk and Robot series.
Until now, no existing robot has personally experienced human society. Mosscap has set out to rectify this omission. While accompanying the monk Sibling Dex on their rural journeys, the robot enthusiastically embraces the chance to witness human behavior in all its peculiar manifestations. The machine’s curiosity is matched only by its unfamiliarity with social conventions.
Dex and Mosscap’s itinerary is interrupted when Mosscap suffers an unexpected setback. A tiny mechanism within the robot breaks. Unable to balance, Mossback finds itself mobility impaired. A quick peek inside the machine reveals to Dex the likely culprit: a broken part. Repairing robots is well outside the Tea Monk’s expertise.
While the excesses of the Factory Age are long past, humans still need an ongoing supply of goods. Thus, it is a simple matter to head towards a village with the ability to manufacture machinery parts to order. At least, this seems simple.
What Dex does not anticipate is a philosophical impediment. The robots have rejected the idea of creating new parts. Instead, when a robot becomes unworkably run down, it is dismantled and its parts used to assemble a new robot. While replacing the offending mechanism is technically straightforward, this solution presents Mosscap with an ethical dilemma.
On the one hand, Mossback would prefer not to cease. On the other hand, ignoring long-term consequences for short-term benefits is what led to the Factory Age. Which matters more, convenience or social responsibility?
The civilizations of this era have replaced short-sighted, destructive behavior with high-grade overthinking. Truly, there is no calamity that cannot be made far more intractable simply by considering the deep philosophical implications of action and of inaction.
As it happens, this novella answers my questions about robot ecology. No, robots do not make new parts. Logically this means that robot society is doomed once all of the parts wear out. The robots have accepted this, seeing their impending collective doom as no different in principle from natural extinction.
Which gets me to an aspect of the books that makes me lean towards classifying them as fantasy rather than SF: there’s an odd lack of dissent. Robots by and large agree to follow a course of action that delivers personal death in the short run and community extinction in the long run. Humans have managed to stick to the ethos they forged at the end of the Factory Age for centuries without apparently needing any mechanism beyond mild social disapproval to enforce conformity. It’s very odd and not what I would expect from humans. Robots, who can say?
Reading two Monk and Robot novellas in two weeks is a bit like eating too many confections in one sitting. Still, not your problem. Unlike me (proud recipient of an ARC, or advance reader copy) you will have to wait until the summer to get your hands on this.
1: Because I’d feel like a total chump if I put this off until June only to be incinerated in World War Three before then. Granted, the feeling of regret would probably be brief.