Saturday, 4 September 2010

The God Engines by John Scalzi

Lowdown: Engine problems on a spaceship powered by a god.
The God Engines is the short story ("novelette") I chose to initiate my ebook reading career with, having received my new Amazon Kindle 3 less than a week ago. I chose it in particular because of my favorable experience with John Scalzi, author of the surprisingly good Old Man's War, and because it was short and I miss those good old days when books did not feel the need to take months of your life away for you to consume them.
John Scalzi has entered my life as a science fiction author less than a year ago, and although I have read only three books of his till The God Engines came along he was already classified as a favorite author of mine because of his approachable writing: here was a guy who was obviously transmitting on my wavelength.
I did have problems with Scalzi's writing, though: Old Man's War, though brilliant and entertaining, was far from being original; most of its ideas were thoroughly explored by other sci-fi authors before him. By the third installment of the Old Man's War world, The Last Colony, I got further annoyed with Scalzi (in the mildest way one can be ever be annoyed): I grew tired of the ongoing manifestation of his personal world views in his books. The God Engines, I am happy to say, suffers from non of the above: it is brimming with originality and its ideas could easily be labeled as subversive by the majority of people. I'm not the only one thinking this way of The God Engines; in an AussieCon4 panel yesterday, Scalzi told us in person that Old Man's War publisher, Thor, would not publish The God Engines because it wanted to maintain its own friendly version of the John Scalzi brand. Instead, Scalzi has had to go underground to get The God Engines published. For him doing that I shall be eternally grateful.
Set in a futuristic fantasy world, The God Engines tells us of a universe opposite to ours, a universe where religion and faith are reality and where science and hard facts aren't. It is a very Bible like world (or the way Christians would put it, an Old Testament world): The God of humans has subdued all the other Gods, and in return for human faith in Him - the source of his power - He let the humans use the beaten up gods as power sources for their spaceships (hence "god engines"). Using the power of their ships' gods, humans can jump through space and expand their territory the way their God did with the other Gods. In this world we follow Captain Tephe, whose battleship's subdued God is becoming more and more rebellious. In parallel to this rebellion, humans suffer several defeats. As Tephe learns more about the big picture, his faith in his God is put to the test.
Other than the originality of the idea behind The God Engines, what I liked the most about it was the way the book took many ideas from the Bible and expanded on them in a way that contemporary religious readers avoid doing. Examples include the ideas that different gods have different territories where they are powerful and territories where other gods are; one god subduing other gods; gods taking an earthly appearance; and the whole concept of sacrifice to the gods. Reading the Bible, especially the older parts of it, you quickly realize all these ideas were taken for granted there; only later on did the God of Israel establish itself as the only real god and the all powerful one. Most of all, The God Engines explores the idea of faith and the jealous God of the Bible: why is it, for example, that the all powerful Bible God is so jealous of his people and their faith in Him, as is very explicitly expressed in the Ten Commandments?
By setting things up in a world where faith and God are as real as scientific fact is in our world, Scalzi goes out to explore what faith really means and, in particular, explore the small letters of our real world's faiths and what it would mean to live in a world where those faiths were actually as true and real as their believers say they are. Scalzi's answers as to the way such a world would rate would probably count as heresy by most believers, especially as Scalzi makes sure to take things to the extreme and expose the virtues of faith for everything they can deliver. The God Engines, it seems, is a fictional way with which to deliver a message similar to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I have to say this took me by surprise, given the more than politically correct attitude shown towards religion in the other Sclazi books I have read, and given the way Scalzi takes care to present himself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. Regardless of that, The God Engines is a book that examines the concept of faith to the extreme, and in doing so shows its author to be very familiar with the Bible; given my own familiarity to this latter work of fiction, the result of ten years of Israeli schooling, I found great delight in reading The God Engines.
Overall: The God Engines is proof that a good idea can take you a long way. It's the best fantasy I have read in years, and it deserves the 5 out of 5 stars rating I'm giving it for originality alone. I hope that tomorrow night it would also receive official recognition and win a Hugo award.

1 comment:

Moshe Reuveni said...

Another topic worth mentioning that God Engines deals with is the power of the spoken word (in particular, the power that god's name has). I find the topic interesting because even though today we pretend not to think much of the magical power a name can have we still hesitate when it comes to swearing, and often for similar reasons.
As I said, The God Engines is an interesting book.