📚The Comfort of Fictional Religions: The Sensayers of Terra Ignota
Cultivating personal spirituality outside community
Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota tetralogy features one of the most complex cases of world-building I’ve ever read (this is a compliment!). One of my favorite aspects of the book is how it acknowledges a personal need for something approaching philosophy & theology, while remaining suspicious of communal aspects of religion.
I originally learned of the series from a WIRED profile of Palmer published last February, and just wrapped up reading the last book in the series last week. It has dominated my imagination for some time.
The plot of the series, which takes place in the 2400s, is hard to summarize—but the world in which it takes place has several key features:
the defining moments of the 22st century were in the aftermath of The Church Wars, after fundamentalists went to war and religious houses, meetings, and proselytizing were banned globally.
simultaneously, autonomous hypersonic eco-friendly flying cars made differences of distance and geography moot—the whole globe could be reached in under 2 hours.
as people became less bound by geography, they formed “Hives” instead of geographic nations—Humanists (people who are into human achievement), Masons (people who like order & hierarchy), Utopians (futurists), Gordians (nerds of the highest order), Cousins (caretakers), Mitsubishi-Greenpeace (real estate barons), and Europeans (who have a vestige of monarchy). Some geographic nations still exist, but this is how most people identify. They have their own laws, and it gets more complex from there. (A similar idea is explored in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.)
The nuclear family is superseded by the concept of a ‘bash’—larger groups of people that live together, in various couplings & configurations, and finally
In addition to banning organized religion, public discussion of gender is also banned—everyone is referred to with they/them pronouns (the primary POV character eschews this tradition and uses gendered pronouns, but does so in order to offer commentary.)
At the opening of the first book, the Earth has known peace & prosperity for almost 300 years. Suffice to say, both gender and religion are sleeping dragons that are awoken and cause all manner of trouble within the narrative.
But it is the Sensayer tradition that speaks to me, and speaks to the very human desire—the human need, for many of us—to explore meaning.
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