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One-line summary: Scalzi channels Lovecraft, gets Terry Pratchett & Joss Whedon instead



Reviews:

Amazon: Average: 3.3. Mode: 5 stars.
Goodreads: Average: 3.59. Mode: 4 stars.


Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this -- and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given.

Tephe knows from that the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It’s what he doesn’t know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put -- and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely...

Author John Scalzi has ascended to the top ranks of modern science fiction with the best-selling, Hugo-nominated novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. Now he tries his hand at fantasy, with a dark and different novella that takes your expectations of what fantasy is and does, and sends them tumbling.

Say your prayers... and behold The God Engines.



I love me some John Scalzi, though mostly I love his blog, Whatever. I'm a bit lukewarm on his fiction. I read one of the books in his Old Man's War series and was kind of, "Meh."

Anyway, The God Engines is rather like the last book I reviewed, Out of the Dark, by David Weber, in which a military SF author with a substantial following from previous series decides to do something different and mix sci-fi and fantasy.

The God Engines isn't painful, boring, and stupid, like Out of the Dark, so that's point one in its favor. Point two is that it's a novella, which means if you do think it sucks, you'll only suffer for a short time. It's also available as an ebook from Baen Books for only 5 bucks, so it's a minimal investment in both time and money.

I quite liked it, though it didn't quite bring me around to the "OMG! John Scalzi is awesome and I must read everything else he's written!" camp. It's a space opera in a dark fantasy setting. The title is quite literal, as starships are powered by enslaved gods. We learn quickly that Captain Tephe's interstellar empire is ruled by his Lord, a god who rules above all other gods, and the story is allegedly about faith as much as it is about god-wars and space battles. This aspect felt a little flat to me, because for the most part, gods in a polytheistic setting competing for worshipers is a fantasy invention, not something that happened much in the real world, and so when Scalzi uses that trope here, it felt a bit like Terry Pratchett's Small Gods through a dark, Lovecraftian lens.

I wasn't thrilled by the ending, which was pretty much inevitable but (oh, you saw this coming, didn't you?) was a bit of a deux ex machina, and had the feeling of "Well, this is a novella, only got a few pages left, better wrap things up!"

The God Engines also has a bit of a Joss Whedon feel to it (I'm thinking specifically of Firefly, and more specifically, of Serenity). Adding to this Whedonesque vibe was the "rookery" aboard Tephe's ship, in which "rooks" serve the physical and emotional needs of the crew. Interestingly, the rook Shalle is deliberately never referred to by a gendered pronoun, and even the sex scenes are written in such a way as to make it unclear what gender Shalle is. It's also not clear if this is meant to imply that all rooks are of indeterminate gender, or if Scalzi was just being precious about this one character. It led me to believe that the rook(s) had some major part to play in the denouement, and Shalle was in fact critical to the climax, but not in a way that made the character's gender or lack thereof relevant. So, I'm not entirely sure what Scalzi's purpose was, other than to maybe mess with the readers' assumptions a bit.


Verdict: A good, brisk story mixing dark fantasy with science fiction. It's quite different from Scalzi's normal work, so not the best sample to see if you like his writing, but for the length and the price, if you find the description moderately interesting, you can't go wrong checking it out.

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
swissmarg
Oct. 15th, 2010 06:11 pm (UTC)
Awesome cover art.
fpb
Oct. 15th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
gods in a polytheistic setting competing for worshipers is a fantasy invention, not something that happened much in the real world,
I hate to have to tell you this (because I consider Scalzi's implicit theory so much nonsense), but you ought to take a look at the history of Hinduism. And there was a certain amount of competition for popularity in Egyptian religion too.
inverarity
Oct. 15th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure Scalzi doesn't actually believe in his "theory." (In fact, I know he doesn't, because he's an atheist/agnostic.)

People in polytheistic cultures did marketing and recruiting for their gods (as people in monotheistic cultures do), but I don't think most of them actually subscribed to the common fantasy trope mentioned above, that the god with the most worshipers becomes Number One God and gets to eat all the others.
fpb
Oct. 15th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
The point is rather that, as someone said, "God" is not the singular of "gods". Hindus actually get mad at you if you call them polytheists: they will tell you that all their gods are nothing but aspects of the One. God, in the singular, is the principle of existence; the gods, in the plural, are individual powers - and it is logically absurd to imagine that one of them may be promoted to principle of all existence, just like that. From that point of view, it is clear that Scalzi writes coherently with his atheism, in that he is unable and unwilling to imagine God in the proper sense.
inverarity
Oct. 15th, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
it is clear that Scalzi writes coherently with his atheism, in that he is unable and unwilling to imagine God in the proper sense.

...or that he was writing about a fantasy universe.

Edited at 2010-10-15 09:06 pm (UTC)
fpb
Oct. 15th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
And that his fantasy universe features no God in the proper sense.
inverarity
Oct. 15th, 2010 10:27 pm (UTC)
...

Edited at 2010-10-16 02:34 am (UTC)
fpb
Oct. 16th, 2010 06:11 am (UTC)
Hey, all I am doing is giving him credit for creating a universe that is consistent with his beliefs. (Remember my questions about JKR's Christianity? And John Wright's well-deserved strafing run on Philip Pullman's horribly, almost pathologically inconsistent world-building?)
(Anonymous)
Oct. 15th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
Rhemus wrote
because for the most part, gods in a polytheistic setting competing for worshipers is a fantasy invention, not something that happened much in the real world,

Pope Gregory saw some slaves in the market, quipped "Non angli sed angeli." = "Not angels, but Anglicans." and believed that the pun was a Sign from God that he should send missionaries to England to Compete for Worshippers.

In the real world, ALL missionary work = Competing for Worshippers is done by priests of each denomination because they are the only people who can do it. In Fantasy land, gods DO exist and can do some missionary duty themselves.

It ain't just Discworld where Gods WANT to be worshipped. Stargate Ori fed on worship and grew stronger. Star Trek, the Olympians faded away without worship.
inverarity
Oct. 15th, 2010 08:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Rhemus wrote
Dang, I should have mentioned Stargate when citing other examples of that trope. Scalzi is a consultant on SGU (I try to forgive him for it), so I don't doubt SG and Trek also influenced him.
fpb
Oct. 15th, 2010 08:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Rhemus wrote
Pope Gregory almost certainly said nothing of the kind - it is a fable written down centuries after he died. And historically most missionaries have always been laymen. People become converted from personal contact. Also, some religions are missionary (Buddhism and Christianity), most are not (Hinduism, Hebraism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, etc.). Islam, and Hinduism too, have spread by military conquest, but practically never by proselitism.
(Anonymous)
Oct. 16th, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Rhemus wrote
I should have written "MEMBERS of the Denominations do Missionary duty." rathers than "PRIESTS"

My point was that in Real Life only Humans are available for missionary duty; but in Fantasy Land, Hobbits and Gods exist. Therefore Hobbits and Gods are available for missionary duty.
fpb
Oct. 16th, 2010 10:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Rhemus wrote
Fair enough.
(Anonymous)
Oct. 16th, 2010 01:56 am (UTC)
Polytheism and pseudepigraphy
"...gods in a polytheistic setting..."

Like Christianity.

Besides the old "3=1" polytheism (`cause three don't equal one, kiddies, no matter how you try to wrangle it), each separate cult of Christianity (you know: the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, etc ad absurdum) believes different ideas about its god. In a philosophical sense, they're pretty incompatible, and essentially different Christian gods.


"...a fable written down centuries after he died..."

Sort of like the gospels.
(Deleted comment)
anthonyjfuchs
Oct. 16th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Polytheism and pseudepigraphy
I can say the same, actually. That was the age at which I began questioning the cult I'd been raised in (Catholicism), so that was when I began studying the material for myself, learning the requisite languages for reading what documents I could get hold of, discovering the history of the book's composition.

And I will politely decline to respect your "expertise," along with your beliefs, as I would decline to respect the expertise of a Lochnessian scholar or a celebrated UFOlogist. Your ability to explain the "mechanics" or transubstantiation is identical to me to my college roommate's ability to explain the "mechanics" of a functional lightsaber.

And frankly, I couldn't muster any respect for you even as a person, since you actually think that anyone who forms an opinion that opposes yours could only have done so from an education as paltry as reading a few books or a couple of magazine articles. Learned students of history can, have, and regularly do view the "evidence" and come to the reasonable conclusion that it is insufficient to support such ridiculous theological claims.

You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are no way entitled to demand that the rest of us respect it or you, or the absurd beliefs you prop up with it. When Sam Harris (most recently) called the "evidence" (limited and shoddy as it may be) "copies of copies of copies of" interpretations or interpretations...man, he wasn't kidding.

Of course, none of that has anything to do "The God Engines" or Inverarity's review of it (well, maybe in an extremely tangential way), so it's all for naught. Sort of like religion in general...but there I go again. Nevermind.
inverarity
Oct. 17th, 2010 12:22 am (UTC)
That's enough
Knock it off, both of you. anthonyjfuchs, stop poking.

fpb, I am not amused that you posted a bunch of comments here, deleted them, and then went and reposted the exchange on your own LJ.
anthonyjfuchs
Oct. 17th, 2010 01:16 am (UTC)
Poker? I hardly know her.
Poke. Poke. Po---sorry.

It's a nasty habit. Like smoking. I must quit.

I wish I knew how to quit him. ;)
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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