I don’t like to review books by friends and very rarely do it on my blog. For one thing, you never know how they’re going to take it. Even if the review overall is good, we (people in general) remember the critical comment(s) and sometimes it’s hard to divorce yourself from your work (“don’t bring your beef with me into your review” “What beef?” “Obviously you have one or you wouldn’t have said what you did”). Secondly, I personally don’t like to hurt anyone’s wallet. Many of my friends are professionals and I don’t want to cost them potential sales.
Don’t get me wrong, I really love it when I read a friend’s work and I dig it. That’s the fastest way to get me to my blog (I’m thinking of Cullen Bunn’s The Damned or The Damned: Prodigal Sons or Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams). All of which brings me to John Scalzi.
Scalzi and I have been friends for a while and have had more than a couple conversations on spiritual topics, because I love how his mind comes at things. I was looking for an excuse to read something of his when he mentioned his novella, The God Engines. He gave me a two-fold admonition: 1) “You’re free to not like this book” (I’ve since co-opted this when talking to potential new readers, because there’s nothing like relieving a friend of the burden of “having” to like their book, see “you never know how’re they’re going to take it/divorcing them from their work”); and 2) “If you don’t like it, you’ll not like it in an interesting way.”
“For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.” –Psalms 96:4
The thing is, The God Engines may not be the best introduction to Scalzi’s work, others warned me, as it lacks his trademark humor. It is a work that starts in a bleak place, opening with the line “It was time to whip the god,” and then moves to darker places.
We’re presented with a far flung future where a space faring people, govered by the Bishopry Militant who serve their One True Lord, use (lesser) gods to guide their ships, like warp core deities. A world where faith is as real and tangible as magic and a future where the faith of a crew powers the vessels, even though the gods propel the ships through space while under duress (“It was time to whip the god”).
The captain of the good ship Righteous, Ean Tephe, is pit against the ship’s high priest, Croj Andso. It’s Croj’s job, along with his acolytes, to control their god. The problem is that the gods throughout the fleet have been harder than usual to wrangle lately. Tephe gets summoned before the Bishopry and told that there is a lack of faith among the True Lord’s followers which has emboldened the lesser gods. This is where there was a bit of a leap as to the definition of faith, because you would thing with gods manifesting themselves faith might be easier to come by. Still, there’s not faith like the white heat of a new convert, so that’s what the captain is tasked to do: convert some new followers.
“To name a god is to give it power.”
The story started off a little uneven for me. The dialogue seemed stiff as everyone spouted World-Building and Dialogue and Back Story. Once everyone settled in, the story took off, with the final third being quite the pay off. The last act basically overturned every assumption, challenged everyone, and subverted expectations in ways I don’t want to spoil.
Books, art in general, are conversations between the writer and the reader and sometimes I want to say something back.
“He says both our priest and your general would have been satisfied to make his people obey Our Lord at the point of a spear. The headman suggests that to him this means that force may be the way such obeisance is usually made.” –Ysta
There’s an interesting critique under the surface of The God Engines as it walks the delicate line between a respect for what faith can be and contempt for an “unexamined faith.” Not to mention the inherent problems of conflating church and state (or worse, church and military). Scalzi deliberately echoes the world of the Middle Ages, crusading in God’s name and the idea of “assisting” Him with His plans. Where unchecked Ecclesiastical powers controlled wealth and dictated exploration, trade, and wars. And a religious stamp of approval on our prejudices and ambitions, so unlike the times we live in now.
There are many contradictory elements to faith. First off, finding faith is a lot like falling in love, and there is an element of the irrational to both. Then there are the competing compulsions faith drives people to: fear/love, hate/justice. Faith can deepen as we looking for answers, in the wake of the Lord’s silence, and don’t find them rather than having them handed to us. But that’s too scary a place to be. Faith can wither just as quickly as we find out that we have a fair weather faith, such that when a real crisis arises, it is exposed, like conversion at the tip of a spear, as empty. Either way, you have to figure out whether your faith is worth living (or dying) for.
There is plenty a reader could be offended by in The God Engines if they are so inclined. I’m simply not so inclined, as I don’t think Scalzi set out to make a book to offend. Provoke some questions, definitely. It wouldn’t be Scalzi if the story wasn’t imbued with a deep and careful thoughtfulness. I highly dug The God Engines. Hopefully I liked it for interesting reasons, too.