Our Lady of the Artilects

More than any other genre, sci-fi seems built to spawn new literary movements. From its metaphysical beginnings in HG Wells, Mary Shelley, and Jules Verne, it blossomed into the pulp era of the early 20th century and ultimately the “new wave” of writers like Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula Le Guin.

Now, readers can spend a lifetime in a single subgenre, whether it be space opera, time travel, utopian, dystopian, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, steampunk, cyberpunk, or the “hope-punk” work of contemporary authors like Becky Chambers.

But the most exciting new development in the field may the wave of “incensepunk” novels by writers like Andrew Gillsmith, Yuval Kordov, Lina Rather, and Neal Stephenson. Its roots go back to classics like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz.

Altered Carbon production design

What is incensepunk?

According to incensepunk.com, “incensepunk is, at its core, a genre of longing…it tries to envision what the world would look like if faith and society adapted around each other.” Think of Byzantine or Gothic architectural styles expressed as skyscrapers or new cities, thousand-meter high minarets, holographic artwork adorning sacred temples, technology-enabled meditation techniques. Beyond mere aesthetics, it treats faith–and doubt–as key elements of the human experience. In other words, the important questions that underlie all faiths are not ignored or treated as mere background scenery, but are brought to the fore, both in terms of plot and character development. It is not, the manifesto stresses, a medium for cheap evangelization or pat answers. Characters in incensepunk novels may belong to any faith–or to no faith at all–but they are first and foremost three-dimensional human beings trying to make sense of the universe and their place in it.

“I think, in some ways, that incensepunk is the most natural and predictable literary response to the sense-making crisis of the modern world,” says Andrew Gillsmith, author of Our Lady of the Artilects. “As the pace of technological scientific development continues to accelerate, the questions that science and technology cannot answer inevitably become more important: does life have a purpose? If so, what is it? What is consciousness and where does it come from? Some of the best scientific minds in the world today have pointed out that, at the quantum level, there is no 'there' there. Local reality simply ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. Others propose–seriously and credibly–that we live in a kind of holographic universe or simulation. But whose simulation? Neuroscience, for all of its impressive advances, has not and will likely never solve the 'hard problem of consciousness,' meaning how does a brain generate a mind, which leads some to question whether we have the question backwards: is it possible that it is the mind that generates the brain instead? If so, whose mind? How can anyone hope to make sense of a world where these questions are unanswered?”

Our Lady of the Artilects by Andrew Gillsmith

Our Lady of the Artilects

Gillsmith believes that we are in the early stages of a complete breakdown of Enlightenment-era materialism. “You have quantum neuroscientists like Donald Hoffman and philosophers like Bernardo Kastrup saying that spacetime itself is a kind of ‘headset,’ an almost trivial aspect of a much broader reality.”

In both Our Lady of the Artilects and its sequel, A Cloud of Unknowing, characters range from devout Muslims to Catholic priests to agnostic astronomers and transhuman atheists. There are no straw-men to be found. Each point of view is taken seriously, and every character struggles with doubt. Perhaps this is why the book has been so highly rated, with hundreds of five-star reviews and praise from established sci-fi authors like Ray Nayler.

“Doubt is, to me, a lot more interesting than certainty,” explains Gillsmith. “I’m not sure that human beings are meant for certainty.”

And yet that need for certainty seems to be deeply embedded into what it means to be human. “I am, like Gene Wolfe, a Roman Catholic,” says Gillsmith, “which tells you both more and less about me than you might think. If pressed, I would say that there is some level of absolute truth, though I suspect it is unknowable for us. That, to me, has always been the real meaning of the story of Christ walking on water. He is the Logos–the eternal word made flesh. In the ancient Near East, water always represented chaos, danger. Only the Logos can make a path over water, and only by focusing our entire being on the Logos can we, like the fisherman Peter, hope to do the same.”