The God Engines
Subterranean Press, 2009
First Line: It was time to whip the god.
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, despite being something a genre fanatic, that this is the first John Scalzi book I’ve read. I’ve always had every intention to read Old Man’s War but that intent has never manifested itself into action; this is a fact I’m going to have to remedy. The God Engines is a horror/fantasy novella that happens to take place in space; mostly. Our protagonist, Ean Tephe, captains a spaceship whose main means of FTL propulsion just happens to be a god bound in chains. Captain Tephe is part of an interstellar religious empire almost directly guided by their actual god. Tephe’s God just happens to have subjugated and bound other gods. The God Engines is an absolute page turner with vibrant living characters in a vividly depicted landscape. While the ships in the novella are never discussed in specific detail my brain certainly saw them as something straight out of Battlefleet Gothic (or maybe the Universal Church of Truth with their penchant for worshiping formless squishy things); an image aided by the ominous tone of the novel.
At first glance it might be easy to say that The God Engines is novel that excoriates religion. However, I’m not quite sure that is the whole story here. The God Engines is more a novel about faith and the power its use and and abuse can generate. It doesn’t typically concern itself with the specific doctrines of its fictional religion outside of the faith required for service and obligation the god. In particular it is a novella about blind faith, faith without question, and its criticism seems to fall most heavily not on the nature and power and faith itself but rather the structures and offices that arise to allow that faith to be used for ill-gains. In the case of The God Engines that structure is represented by the Bishop Militant and reflected in the tensions that arise on the ship between respective heads of secular and religious authority.
The juxtaposition between truth and faith plays an important role in The God Engines. Scalzi paints a rather Lovecraftian view on truth here. In face Scalzi more or less reaffirms man’s existence on “a placid isle of ignorance amidst the black seas of infinity.” Unfortunately for several our characters they end up journeying a bit further afield from that island than they should; and the results are just as disastrous as Lovecraft predicted. Misplaced faith and disastrous truths lend the novella an undeniable bleak air that lingers long after you’ve closed the book thanks to the wondrously futile final lines from Captain Tephe.
If it wasn’t already obvious The God Engines is rife with metaphor; and especially metaphors about faith. Faith as iron. Faith as power. Faith as a weapon. Faith as a doorway. Faith is everything. As the novel also goes on to reveal faith is also absolutely nothing. Again this results in an almost earth shattering, and most definitely, heart breaking bleakness regarding the futility of human existence in the face of the unfathomable mysteries of the universe at large. It isn’t a comforting message.
I can’t recommend The God Engines enough. In fact I quite regret not having went for the limited edition rather then the trade. It is an impressive work of fiction with a depth of meaning and quality of composition that is particularly amazing in light of the brevity employed to bring it to fruition. If you’re a fan of…well any type of good reading at all then do yourself a favor an pickup The God Engines.