John Scalzi’s best known for a lot of things: his blog, Whatever, where he talks about whatever’s on his mind at the moment, and his Science Fiction series, Old Man’s War, are only a couple. When he announced his upcoming Fantasy debut in 2009 I was surprised and quickly realized I needed to read a copy as soon as I could. Not to mention, the cover art for the Subterranean Press hardcover is only a glimpse of the artwork inside. The God Engines is a fascinating take on Fantasy that really overlaps with Science Fiction enough to please Scalzi fans approaching the book familiar with only Old Man’s War.
Captain Ean Tephe and his crew are on their way back from a failure at Ament Cour aboard the Righteous. When the book opens, readers are hit with one of the most eye-catching first lines I’ve ever read: “It was time to whip the god” (p. 7). From there on, there’s little I can say that wouldn’t ruin the book for you, but I’ll try not to; the beauty of this book is in reading it for yourself. As the title suggests, The God Engines is going to be about something to do with the latter two words: gods and engines; as the first line suggests: the god has done something reproachable. Scalzi quite literally imagines a time far into our future where the science of space travel has transcended the boundaries between what is quantifiable and what is not. Space travel is possible on a level entirely different from what we know or typically imagine today; the journeys we still aspire to between and among the stars has transformed and evolved (this is probably not the best word) into the nebulous and almost magical realm of religion. The gods of Tephe’s universe are given human form as they have been broken and anchored to the only thing that keeps them under control: iron. With methods unknown to mortals, the gods can draw on the faith of their followers to become the engine of the ships built around their iron prisons. It’s the particular god on Tephe’s ship that’s gotten a little out of control and begun attacking members of the crew that has him, and the Priest Andso, worried.
Tephe’s god is creepy, demented, and viciously feral and cruel. It refers to itself in the plural, uttering “we” and “us” in place of “I” and “me.” It grins and giggles savagely with the blood of its victims caught still between its gleaming teeth. This god is deranged. Not all gods are so disturbed–Tephe relates the past assignments he’s had on various ships with gods as varied and with as many different personalities as you’d expect any mortal to have. It’s only Tephe’s dumb luck he’s been stuck with this one. Of interest to note is the subtext Scalzi weaves into The God Engines. There are questions over Faith being metaphorical or literal and whether one definition has any advantage over the other. One thing is true: Faith has become the science of this book so much that The God Engines comes dangerously close to being Science Fiction itself.
It’s a new marriage of the genres that blends the tangible and measurable applications of iron (for one example) and the very personal and immeasurable quality of religious belief. The juxtaposition of what is real and what has always been subjective churns out a new element: Faith that is physically consequential with significant and inarguable results. If a ship’s crew were to lose faith, its on-board god would sense this and their engine would fail, leaving them stranded in the dead cold of space. Faith literally drives humanity through the stars, from one destination to the next. This gives trusting in technology to do what it’s there to do to an entirely different meaning. When faith is more dire than fate, have the humans of Scalzi’s future come to depend on technology so much it’s (or more apt: it’s ability to work) become the thing which they pray to? Tephe’s dilemma–a problem that affects everyone on the Righteous–will test the strength of his faith and raise some interesting ideas about religion.
Overall, Scalzi impressed me yet again. The writing is not what I’m used to from him. It’s slightly elevated to give the text an atmosphere I hesitate to say is necessary, but works well. To be honest, I found myself getting caught up on some phrases which, while not awkward, were worded very particularly; the quick wit and frank dialogue of his Old Man’s War trilogy are not entirely here, if at all. I think it’s because I was reading the book so slowly that I even bothered to notice eight grammatical and punctuation errors–and that’s before I stopped writing them all down. There are a few more than come to mind from the last third of the book. I don’t mention this to be pedantic, but to wonder why, if this is such a slim book, the errors were not caught? In any event: The God Engines surpassed anything I expected from Scalzi, errors not even considered. His characters are dynamic, shrewd, intelligent, and never failed to engage. The prose is still compelling. I may have experienced nostalgia for the exposition and dialogue of his Old Man’s War books, but let me remind you: I had to force myself to read this slowly. I did not want to devour it because its length dictated I could. I was drawn into this book and I hope when you read it you will be, too. Just a warning: The God Engines is graphic. If you’re squeamish and bothered by gore, you may want to tread carefully.
Release Date: December 31, 2009
<Reviewed Format: hardcover