BOOK REVIEW: “The God Engines” by John Scalzi (2009)

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If you’re a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim, you probably shouldn’t read this book. Heck, if you’re a Hindu or an African tribal shaman, you should probably try to stay away from it as well. Basically, this book is an equal opportunity offender: If you believe in God or gods at all, this story will bother and scare you. It’s like an old Pkzip file that unzips in your mind, flooding your thoughts with disturbing notions that you can’t really easily delete. Definitely not a tale to be entered into lightly and unawares because it’s a very hard one to leave behind again.

That said, I find I quite liked it.

Oh, sure, I found it offputting, sacrilegious, oppressive and vaguely scary for the first chapter or to - all of which was clearly intended by the author - but I was fairly quickly drawn in by the understated characterization, the creepy setting and the rapidly unfolding and interesting plot. By the end, I realized *some* (but not all) of the curse had been taken off the story simply because it wasn’t going in the direction I thought it was.

The setup:

At some point in the future humanity’s god has defeated all the other gods, and enslaved them to man: the gods power starships. Since faster-than-light travel is impossible in the physical universe, since physics dictates that such things simply can’t happen, these ships use supernatural means to get about. These are the titular “God Engines.”

Seriously, how cool is that? I mean, I’ve read a *lot* of SF and SF/Fantasy hybrids in my day, and I’ve never come across anything like this before! Though enslaved, the gods are not docile: They resist, they connive, they cajole, they refuse to work on occasion, and sometimes they slip their bonds, go crazy eight bonkers, and kill everyone.

For readers of occidental religions, the real sticking point is the intimation that Humanity’s god is the same as the Judeo/Christian/Islamic one. This is never clearly stated, and (Minor spoiler) events in the end of the book show it not to be the case, but it’s inferred strongly enough through three quarters of the story to make it very uncomfortable for a reader of faith. Very bad things are said of this fictional god, the depiction of who’s worship will seem pretty familiar to any Catholics, or high-church Protestants.

The gods - even humanity’s god in the story - gain power from their worshipers. The more people that believe in them, the more powerful they are. They’re promised life after death and all the usual incentives, but, as with the Ori in the later seasons of Stargate: SG1, these things can’t be taken on faith. If all this all seems a bit too similar to the whole Ori/Book of Origin thing, it is. Scalzi works on the current Stargate: Universe show, though he never worked on SG1. I don’t believe he ripped the story off from that show - he’s too good a writer, this is thematically too close to a lot of his other work - but it is a curious case of parallel development.

The enslaved gods - who bear a disturbing and no doubt intentional similarity to the demons of Abrahamic religions - have one last hope to overthrow the evil tyrant god who rules humanity. This leads to a horrific and gruesome, but very logical finale that all makes sense, and evokes various forms of Gnosticism. I can’t tell you any more than that without giving away the surprises, but suffice it to say this is not a happy ‘gee gosh wow’ Buck Rogersy novel. It is, however, one of the most unique and interesting ones I’ve seen in years, but then I spent years and years as a heretic before coming back into the fold, so I’m somewhat immune to esoteric fictional theologies. You may not be so thick skinned, and if you’re not, you may hurt yourself with this one.

The book jacket says, “If J.G. Ballard and H.P. Lovecraft had ever collaborated […] the results might have been like this.” I think that’s fairly apt, though I’d throw Philip K. Dick into the mix as well. The setup, the theological extrapolation, the horrifying implications, and the gnosticism nibbling in the fringes of the story are all very Dickian, from one of his darker moods (As in, say, “Faith of our Fathers,” or “Rutavara’s Case,” both of which - once again - should *not* be read by Christians).

Personally, it’s these Gnostic mystery religion touches that most interest me. Though I’m back in the church and once again a mostly-normative Christian (I‘m not a Fundamentalist, however), I remain fascinated by the schema of these long-dead apostasies. I love to read up on them, I have all of their extant scriptures on the shelf behind me as I type this; I love to debate their role in the development of Christianity (Which I suspect is more massive than is commonly realized) and weigh their theologies against each other. This is heady, fascinating stuff, but it is definitely not for the uninitiated.

Again, I can’t really go into details without spoiling a lot of the book, and this isn’t really the place or time to discuss heterodoxy, but suffice to say it informs this book on every spooky level.

I’m sorry to write such a cautionary review, I really am, but as a somewhat fanatical fundamentalist (I’m not one anymore, but I used to be) back in my formative years, I got some of this ‘forbidden knowledge’ type stuff dropped on my by boorish intellectuals who simply didn’t care about scaring children, or taking a dump on their precious things. It hurt me an awful lot, the kind of deep hurt that lasted for years, thinking thoughts I didn’t want to, my faith becoming raggedier and raggedier all the time, living in fear of having absorbed some blasphemy that would damn me to hell forever, sliding into nihilism because self-righteous jackasses are always fond of taking things away from you, but never bother to give you something to replace them with. That kind of thing hurt me, and it hurt others, and though I made it back eventually, having taken the long way ‘round, others I know didn’t.

I refuse to do that. I refuse to say “This is a good book,” (Which, in fact, it is) and not warn my readers of the dangers. I am *not* going to be responsible for causing someone to stumble, or even fall.

Technically, Scalzi has always been a very transparent writer, by which I mean his style does not overshadow his story. He restrains himself. His writing is exactly as florid or as plain as it needs to be for what he’s writing about, which is meant as a high compliment. In this case, he’s more staccato and straightforward, because he’s dealing with fantastic things, and needs to contrast it with the more fantastic and horrific aspects of the story. This isn’t Paradise Lost, and he wisely steers clear of apparent artifice. There’s a lot of really compelling writing, but the machinery of it is all below ground where it doesn’t mess up the scenery or draw attention to himself. I’ve always admired his ability to do that.

What really impresses me, though, is its brevity. The hardback comes in 136 pages, a nice, brisk, tidy Hardy Boys length. There’s enough ideas in here to fill up one of those tedious seven-book cycles, the kind where they take two or three short-story hooks and pad them out to several thousand pages, to the point where the ideas themselves are overcome by dross and watered down into apathetic oblivion (See what I did there? That’s an example of non-transparent writing). I hate those things. I like tight, punchy, crunchy science fiction. I like efficient idea delivery systems, and Scalzi’s always been really good at that. I like a man confident enough in his own ability to come up with neat new ideas that he doesn’t feel the need to stretch them out.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

What? Are you kidding me? Did you not read the review?

Actually, if you’re an atheist conservative like our own occasional contributor, “Doubting Thomas,” you won’t mind it at all. In fact, you’ll probably think it’s pretty cool.

If you’re a Social Conservative (Which is more and more an euphemism for “Politically Active Fundamentalist Christian”), absolutely, positively, definitely, without question, beyond a shadow of a doubt not only will you not like this, you will be enraged.

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