AUTHOR INFORMATION: John Scalzi’s debut novel, Old Man’s War, was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. His other science fiction novels include Agent to the Stars, The Android’s Dream, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale. He has also written several non-fiction books, The Sagan Diary novella, various short fiction, and edited the anthology METAtropolis. In 2006, John Scalzi won the John W. Campbell Award for Best Writer, and in 2009 won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book for Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998 – 2008.
CLASSIFICATION: Despite mostly taking place on the spaceship Righteous, The God Engines is not really science fiction. Instead, The God Engines is a tale of dark fantasy with parts of the novella falling into horror territory. Think Steven Erikson meets Tim Lebbon meets Clive Barker…
FORMAT/INFO: The God Engines is 136 pages long divided over eleven chapters. Includes interior illustrations provided by Vincent Chong. Narration is in the third-person, exclusively via Captain Ean Tephe. The God Engines is self-contained. The God Engines is scheduled for publication in December 2009 via Subterranean Press and will be available in two editions: 1) A fully cloth-bound hardcover and a 2) Signed/Numbered fully leather-bound edition limited to 400 copies. Cover art provided by Vincent Chong.
ANALYSIS: John Scalzi is another author I’ve never read before, even though I own several of his novels. It’s an oversight I’ve been meaning to correct for some time now, but just never got around to doing. However, that all changed as soon as I heard about John Scalzi’s novella, The God Engines. Billed as the writer’s take on fantasy that “takes your expectations of what fantasy is and does, and sends them tumbling,” The God Engines instantly intrigued me and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Much to my pleasure, The God Engines is every bit as good, if not better, than advertised.
In The God Engines, John Scalzi introduces readers to a dark and chilling world where gods not only exist, but can also be tortured, enslaved, or even killed. A world where science has been replaced by faith, where Defiled gods are used as ‘engines’ to power spaceships, where followers may be blessed with Talents — “a thing gods give followers to channel their grace, so the followers may use that grace to their own ends” — and where faith is a tangible power. A world of rooks, Bishop’s Men, and commentaries. A world that is highly imaginative, mostly original (parts of the novella reminded me of James Clemens’ Godslayer Chronicles), immersive despite having only 136 pages to bring the concept to life, and utterly captivating.
In this grim, yet fascinating world, readers will meet a small and well-drawn cast of characters — Captain Ean Tephe of the ship Righteous, Priest Andso, Commander Neal Forn, rook Shalle, the Defiled of the Righteous — who play a pivotal role in the events recorded in The God Engines. Events that are straightforward for the most part, but culminate in an explosive and mind-blowing finish full of dark twists and shocking revelations…
Negatively, I have just one complaint with The God Engines… it’s too short. Most of the novellas I’ve read before were set in established universes that I was already familiar with (Steven Erikson, Alan Campbell, Tim Lebbon, etc), and therefore worked extremely well as complimentary pieces or introductions to the author. As far as I know, The God Engines is not part of an already established universe, and is somewhat of a departure from the author’s other work, so it doesn’t really fall in either category. Instead, The God Engines is an epic-scale idea condensed into novella form. Even though the plot, setting and characters are handled skillfully in the short time allotted, it just seemed like parts of the novella felt rushed or skimmed over, and I believe The God Engines would have worked even better as a full-length novel.
That said, the novella as it is leaves an indelible impression on the reader. It is a hauntingly powerful and provocative tale that will have John Scalzi fans, fantasy lovers, and newcomers alike talking about The God Engines.
Ean Tephe, captain of the Righteous, is a man of great faith. In fact, it’s the faith of Tephe and his crew that keeps Righteous running — it gives power to their god, enabling him to enslave the captured god which powers the spaceship. Somehow, the “defiled” god, like all the conquered gods that run the spaceships in Tephe’s land, are able to swallow light-years of space to transport their crews wherever they need to go. When Captain Tephe and his crew are sent on a missionary journey to proselytize a new planet and their god engine starts to act up, Tephe’s suddenly in danger of losing his religion.
The God Engines, which I listened to on audio (Brilliance Audio) narrated by Christopher Lane, has a tantalizing premise and some appealing characters. I liked Captain Ean Tephe, his capable first mate, and Shalle, the woman who “nurtures the faith” of the officers. The vicious and angry god who is chained to Righteous was truly frightening (Lane’s creepy voice amplified this). The plot, which is slow at the beginning, rapidly speeds up at the end (this is only 3 hours on audio) and becomes intense, scary, twisty, and surprising.
Perhaps it was John Scalzi’s intention, but I never felt comfortable reading The God Engines. My first problem is that it’s closer to horror than science-fantasy. The plot is unpleasant all the way through and it lacks any of Scalzi’s well-known humor or lightness. I was tense and unsettled the whole time I was listening. I realize that this is personal problem, of course, and many readers will appreciate this unexpected darkness from John Scalzi.
My second issue is that The God Engines is simply too short for what it tries to do. I enjoy reading novellas, but they tend to work better when the setting is already familiar, either because they’re set in our own world or in a world the author has explored before. This world, which is entirely new for Scalzi’s readers, was just starting to feel real and I was just settling into it by the time the story was over. Similarly, the idea of blindly worshiping a god whose character you’re unsure of is tantalizing (though not original), but the surface of this concept was merely scratched and I wasn’t given enough time to deeply consider how this would play out in this world. Likewise, the importance and pitfalls of faith were just beginning to be explored.
The ending of The God Engines felt arbitrary and unsatisfying. Scalzi abandoned his characters, world, ideas, and story, just as he was getting going. It’s nice to see John Scalzi trying something new, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe he didn’t like it either.
John Scalzi has written that he intended The God Engines to be his attempt at a fantasy. If that was truly his aim, he missed; The God Engines is a very fine short space opera.
True, many of the fripperies of fantasy are attached to this story: a hierarchical religion that controls the universe of the characters; a protagonist who is a military man of skill, but who is also as religious as he needs to be to advance in this society; and gods, both the beings who, as slaves, power spaceships through mental effort (that is, the “god engines”), and the supreme being whom the protagonist and his species worship. One might especially be forgiven for thinking of the gods as being the stuff of fantasy. But it is at least as easy to think of these gods as aliens who have developed far beyond the species that has managed to enslave them. In fact, looking at the “gods” through that lens makes this a better book.
Captain Ean Tephe has his own ship, powered by one of these “gods,” a particularly stubborn example who has been known to take big bites out of crew members who get too close to it. A ship’s god is a being who was defeated by the god worshipped by his captors. This particular ship’s god is more pugnacious than many, and must be forced by threat of torture — and sometimes actual torture — to propel the ship through space-time. He is ultimately controlled only through the crew’s faith in their own god, which explains why clergy is stationed aboard every ship. But the god engines are becoming more difficult to control, and that apparently has something to do with the level of belief in the supreme god. Those who believe in the supreme god only because they have been brought up to do so give that god a power that is less than the power of an original convert, one who has never heard of the god before. And so Captain Tephe is tasked with traveling to a planet that is innocent of any faith, in order that his ship’s priests might convert them and offer greater power and glory to their god.
If you know Scalzi’s work at all, you know that things do not go exactly as planned. It is how he manipulates his premise and the machinery that supports it that makes this novella such fun to read. From my perspective, this novella is also a comment on religion in general, which makes it all the more interesting and gives the novella a depth belied by its arch cover art.
It isn’t at all surprising that The God Engines was nominated for a 2009 Nebula Award: it’s that good. You’ll want to read it in a single sitting, so make sure you have a couple of hours free when you start it. And keep some thinking time free, too, to deal with the ideas it will provoke.
The God Engines is dark, heavy, and richly textured beneath a gauze of foreboding. John Scalzi’s novella is a severe departure from the tone and wit of his popular Old Man’s War series. But it’s equally as awesome.
The title is quite literal. Superhuman god-like beings are the engines that drive human interstellar travel. While they have the power to move humans and ships across enormous spans of space, their powers are much more vast. The story moves at a rapid pace, and the characters are well drawn despite the books’ length. The universe of The God Engines is creatively conceived.
I agree with Terry’s assessment that Scalzi’s story sits somewhere between scifi and fantasy. It takes a compelling look at religion, faith and what they mean to individuals and societies. The foundation of characters are military, like much of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, but this military and this universe is much more frightening.
Everything is drawn with muted colors. Scalzi’s writing is very clear, and always crisp, but one can’t help but feel a little suffocated in reading this story. Scalzi is also a master at forwarding a plot through well-worded and well-timed dialogue.
This is not your father’s John Scalzi. And this is very good.