review of Becky Chambers's novella A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

I didn't love the first book in this series (review) and wasn't planning to read more. But between how much I've enjoyed most of Chambers's other work, and how adorable this hardcover looked in the bookshop, I decided to give it a shot anyway. It's pleasant and sweet but ultimately didn't hook me any more than the first one.

I do wish our society had a tradition akin to the "ramble" mentioned here:

You're encouraged to regularly spend a month or so walking through the adjacent territories, so you can get a taste of how other folks do things.

Of course we do have the notion of a gap year, but that's typically a one-time thing; we take vacations, but those are typically short and focused on tourist activities detached from day-to-day life.

One scene exemplifies a trope that I find insidious. Dex has caught a fish:

"It's beautiful," said Mosscap. The robot was fascinated but exhibited none of its usual glee. ... "How do you kill it?" A note of grief had entered its voice, but there was acceptance there, too, born out of a lifetime of watching wild things eat and be eaten.

Mx. Avery seemed to note the shift in Mosscap, and their tone likewise became more somber. "Well," they said slowly ... "We let the air do that for us,"...

Mosscap said nothing in response to this. It kept its glowing eyes on the fish, studying the gill flaps as they spasmed in the presence of oxygen they couldn't use. Mosscap watched and watched, and the longer it did, the harder Dex found it to do the same. They'd been fishing bunches of times, had plenty of fish die in their immediate vicinity, eaten more of their kind than they could count. But as they tried to watch as Mosscap did, they became uncomfortable, almost like they were witnessing something that wasn't their business.

But it was their business. They were the one who'd pulled the fish out of its watery home. They were the one who'd stepped in and decided that it was time for something's life to be over because they were hungry and their own life required it. Mosscap was right to look as unflinchingly as it did. Dex was ashamed that they hadn't, before.

The trope is to portray people as more noble and ethical when they practice a sort of mindful attentiveness to the suffering they cause. What's insidious is when this is accepted as a substitute for, rather than a prelude to, actually doing anything to help the victim or future victims. If Dex thinks the fish's painful death matters at all, they should kill it quickly (or not have caught it in the first place - they were fishing as a social activity, not because they were low on food). Being "uncomfortable" for a bit before going back to life as usual does nothing for the fish. Treating this as a commensurate response to the presumably intensely painful experience of suffocation does not show empathy but rather a resolute refusal to empathize.