The idea of personal identity and sentience in artificial intelligences (AI) is not exactly new territory for the science fiction genre: from Neuromancer to Westworld, writers frequently contemplate the ideas of agency and moral status in close-to-human, artificially engineered agents and environments. Those themes, in fact, are almost too compelling to resist, with their easily accessible metaphors for the relation between God and man (creator and created) and their fertile ground for the consideration of free will. Our Lady of the Artilects, the just-published novel by Andrew Gillsmith, walks the reader into this very familiar territory, with many of the same archetypes and plot devices that sci-fi fans will recognize from past works. That said, Gillsmith takes this subject matter in a wholly novel direction. While many previous AI-centered works have indeed toyed with or hinted at the spiritual, this author immerses his characters and story in it, not simply incorporating a vague contemplation on the nature of the consciousness of the created or the obligations of the creator, but actually relying on and concluding with specifically religious, explicitly Catholic dynamics and messages. It is this element, more than any other, that makes Our Lady of the Artilects stand out.
The novel is set in a future world in which humanoid robots number in the thousands, generally serving as the assistants or various other functionaries for the very wealthy individuals who can afford them. Uniquely, these robots—alternately called “artilects” or “synths”—are possessed not only of uncanny human appearances but also moral and emotional capacities. To reach this state, the synths are put through a cycle of thousands of ethical decision-making scenarios (known as “the Pruning”) to hone their judgment and responses in real-world situations. The simulated ethics endowed by the Pruning is coupled with the Simulacrum, an embedded matrix of emotional responses designed to imitate those displayed by human beings. As the novel explains: “The Simulacrum gave them the full range of human emotional responses. The Pruning ensured that those responses met the required ethical and safety standards.” The synths are thus inherently superior to mere minion droids, and their advanced level of ethical and emotional understanding becomes a key plot element.
The book alternates between several (perhaps too many) narrators across its many brief chapters, making it hard to pin down a “main character.” The closest thing to one is Father Gabriel Serafian, a former computer scientist who previously worked on the development of the synths—particularly the early Pruning process—and who, after some personal turmoil, became a priest and a prominent exorcist answering directly to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His dual skillset comes in handy for the plot’s focal events: an apparition of the Virgin Mary solely to the synth population and the apparent demonic possession of one particular synth. That latter occurrence is of specific concern to the Vatican, as the robots are technological creations and thus soulless in the common understanding of the Church (and everyone else). Serafian is sent off to Africa to meet the synth, Thierry, at the scene of the apparent possession in the Basilica of Our Lady of Nigeria. Once the priest makes contact with Thierry, the plot is catapulted forward.
The novel unfolds in a well-developed and highly specific future world of the author’s making: a Philippines-born emperor, based in Vienna, rules over a restored Holy Roman Empire (he is given the title of “Habsburg”), which shares a symbiotic relationship with the Vatican. Its peer global powers are a Caliphate stretching from the Western Sahel to the Chinese border, and China itself. The technological realities of this world, in addition to the synths, include communications and computation implants that allow individual humans to access and share information (often popping out shared displays seemingly made for a future movie adaptation of the book), rapid transportation on a global hyperloop network, surveillance nanodrones, and asteroids pulled into near-earth orbit to be mined for needed minerals. It’s all standard sci-fi fare, and well done (if at times overwhelming in detail).
Perhaps more compelling to the reader, though, will be the plot elements that resemble current-day events and realities, including the Vatican’s efforts to find a suitable resolution to the problems faced by the faithful in China, where Christians have been badly mistreated. In addition, the book describes how Uyghurs have struggled for generations in the aftermath of their expulsion from their lands in western China and internment in camps at Xinjiang. These elements give the reader a helpful real-world context—something with which to orient oneself—in an otherwise fantastical and wholly fictional setting.
The most important incorporation of a real-world event, however, is that of the apparition at Fátima, with the actual 1917 appearance of the Blessed Mother to three children in Portugal providing context for the novel’s fictional events centuries in the future. Notably, the plot hinges on the idea that the Third Secret told by the Blessed Mother to the children (first publicly disclosed by the Vatican in 2000) was never fully revealed, and that events within the story are related to that unrevealed content. The idea of Christ-like sacrifice also plays a central role in the events of the plot; an internal voice repeatedly tells one character that “the universe requires sacrifice. It always has, and it always will, because the universe is sacramental” (that character must decide, at a key moment, whether to act upon the message or not). However, it is the presence and closeness of the Blessed Mother that serves as the primary, proximate medium through which characters receive their moral inspiration and guidance. That’s a compelling and realistic paradigm for those familiar with Catholic life: Christ’s sacrifice was indeed one that inverted the meaning of power and triumph, abolished old laws, and opened the way to salvation. Dramatic and totalizing, it is (along with the subsequent Resurrection) the central event of Christianity. But often it is the suffering of the Virgin, the mother’s tears at the foot of the Cross, the guiding heart of a simple family making sense of the most dramatic events in history, that is more accessible in the daily life and felt frailty of many humans. This is the reason we have Guadalupe, Knock, Medjugorje, Lourdes, Fátima. Of course, a vision similar to those plays a critical role in this book.
That the apparition at Fátima, its method and its message, finds a home in such a completely futuristic and tech-infused fictional world is a wholly unique accomplishment on the part of the author. More than this, the religious context is so seamlessly infused into the AI-driven plot that it makes one wonder why such stories have not been attempted before. The persistence, not only of faith, but of the underlying theological realities that necessitate it, is of course reasonable even in a highly technologically developed world. There is space in speculative and tech-driven fiction, in other words, for a contemplation of human knowledge’s expected and unexpected limitations. This novel fills that space.
Ultimately, Gillsmith carries the reader to the hopeful and, one dares to say, logical conclusion of a tale that invokes and admits of the reality of Christian history and anthropology. It is rooted, ultimately, in a recognition of the plights and pitfalls of embodied souls in a fallen world, of the only kind of triumph available to such beings. In incorporating the truly transcendent, Our Lady of the Artilects transcends its genre, making it unquestionably worth the reading.