Having the #SFFBookClub pick this book for this month was a good excuse to read this book for the third time. My bias here is that I have deeply enjoyed everything I've read from Becky Chambers, so take from that what you will.
This is a slow-moving, character-focused novella that is more focused on existential questions and feelings than on plot. It's got some very funny moments, comfy world-building, and has incredibly endearing vibes. I love the idea of Allalae, god of small comforts so so much. (Also, yay non-binary protagonist, you love to see it.)
The short plot summary is that tea monk Sibling Dex struggles with finding satisfaction with their life and takes a jaunt off the beaten path to find it. On the way, they befriend inquisitive robot Mosscap who is trying to learn about how humans are doing and what they need. This novella is definitely the friends you make along the way. In a strict plot sense, the book ends the journey almost as it is getting started (setting up nicely for the next novella), but the emotional arc is amazingly crafted to deliver a gut punch.
In some ways, Sibling Dex feels like a stand-in for the reader themselves where Mosscap the robot as an outsider is positioned to be able to interrogate Dex about humanity itself and its self-perceptions. Mosscap's quest is to ask humans and find out "what they need", and ultimately this is the same question Dex struggles with themself. Dex feels like they need to get out of the city, or listen to crickets, or become a tea monk, or get away from their routine, or or or
I think it could be easy for this story to feel like it's about something very far from our world. Everybody's basic needs are taken care of. Capitalism seems to be in the past. The environment is being respected and rewilded. The autonomy of rebellious robot workers to stop working and fuck off is respected by all of humanity. All together it's a lovely and hopeful worldview that is hard to hold onto these days. But, the fact that Sibling Dex does not have any easy answers to pin their internal dissatisfaction on some obvious material lack makes their existential struggle and their worries about wasting their life that much more poignant.
I think I keep coming back to this book because it's an extremely hopeful view of the future that I want to hold onto, but also because the message is one I very personally need to keep hearing at this point in my life. It hasn't sunk in yet, but maybe on the next reread...