Thursday, May 19, 2011

The God Engines - John Scalzi

Subterranean had a big sale a while ago. I bought one of their bookbags containing eleven titles, without knowing what would be in them before they arrived. Pretty much all of it is short fiction, which is a good thing, I have been neglecting that particular form lately. I'll be reviewing a couple of those later in the year. It also included John Scalzi's 2009 novella The God Engines. It was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards in the novella category. As usual with Subterranean publications, the book itself looks gorgeous. A very nice hardcover with cover art and interior illustrations by Vincent Chong. The care this publisher takes with even the more modestly priced editions is just amazing. While the physical object is very pretty, I am conflicted about the text itself.

The God Engines is set in a universe where gods are at war with each other. Long ago, one of them managed to subdue most of its competitors and become the single most worshipped creature in a universe united in their faith in him. The vanquished gods are taken prisoner and serve on the fleet of starships of the scattered colonies of humanity. Carefully controlled by the crew, these gods provide the means of travelling the stars. Captain Ean Tephe serves on one of these ships. Lately, the god powering his ship has become increasingly rebellious. It appears he is not the only one. When the captain has his ship recalled for new orders, it becomes clear that there is trouble ahead. The kind that will test his faith mightily.

Religion is the main theme of this novella. The all conquering god seems the be very much in control, with his church running the affairs of humanity. They rely completely on their god to provide travel between the stars and although it is known to the priesthood that humanity once possessed the technology to power spaceships, that knowledge appears to be lost. In fact, not much science is in evidence in the story. Perhaps this is why the publisher chose to market it as dark fantasy rather than science fiction. Most people in the novel behave more or less like the ideal flock, their faith is firm, not all that surprising given the level of dependence and the regular affirmation the faithful receive. The ruling god was careful enough the have history sanitized for his own purposes and his church is careful to keep a few other secrets for him. A theocratic dystopia. Rather depressing really, and in my opinion, presented in a heavy handed way.

I guess it shouldn't have come as a surprise that resistance does not come from people who would like a bit more control over their own destiny but from those worshipping one of the captured gods. Imagine his gratitude on being freed from eternal slavery. Apparently there is only one way to stay in power against such opposition, lying, keeping secrets and generally being the meanest son of a bitch around. In a universe where faith does not (in part) depend on believing in something unseen, finding out your god is not that nice a fellow is a bit of a shock. Ean Tephe doesn't like it at all in fact, but his struggles with his conscience don't really convince. Scalzi manages to make a starship captain look a wee bit naive here.

There were parts of the novella I liked better. The relationship with the "Rook", a mix of councillor, prostitute and secret agent, Shalle Thew is particularly interesting. Although most readers will assume Shalle is female, nowhere in the story is this actually mentioned. The temptation to use particular or possessive pronouns must have been overwhelming for Scalzi but he manages to avoid them. Even the illustration Chong provided could be either. So easy to assume, I almost missed it. It would have been nice if this part of the story had been a bit more detailed, Shalle is quite important in the final part of the story but since we see the action form Tephe's point of view, her motives remain a bit nebulous. Then again, the whole character is a bit mysterious so perhaps that is for the best.

The idea behind The God Engines is intriguing but in the end the novella didn't work for me. Parts could certainly have used a bit more subtlety and the story as a whole could have done with some more words to mature. The main character never really convinced me. I guess I'm not surprised that it didn't win those awards it was nominated for. I understand it is a bit of a departure from Scalzi's other works, which tend to be science fiction of the military kind. Perhaps one of those would work better for me.

Book Details
Title: The God Engines
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 136
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-299-3
First published: 2009


  1. Val, stumbled on your site through SF Signal. The God Engines sounds like an intriguing premise, which is why it's so disappointing to hear that you weren't too much of a fan. I probably would have picked it otherwise. I will definitely add you to my blogroll/links and keep up. Love the reviews!

  2. Thank for visiting Random Comments!

    Opinions on this novella seem to be mixed. It has received its share of rave reviews as well so it might just be a matter of taste ;)