Review: God Engines by John Scalzi
The God Engines by John Scalzi was released as a standalone novella by Subterranean Press in 2009. It was nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo. It’s been on my radar for at least that long, but I just got around to reading it.
This is a story that fires on all cylinders. The magic system is tied to religious imagery. All the elements expected in a space opera have analogs in this system. Space ships, faster than light travel, communication at a distance, etc. Religion has replaced science and we’re shown repeatedly that the standard metaphors employed by this religion’s texts are NOT metaphors, but truth. It’s all delightfully twisted and wrapped around some interesting characters.
As the story progresses, it becomes less and less clear who we should be rooting for. Everyone is telling the truth as they see it … except when they’re lying. The religious intrigue feels like religious intrigue, the magic rituals feel like magic rituals, the first contact scenario feels like a first contact scenario. Nothing is what it seems.
Scalzi deftly writes what initially seems to be a transparent commentary on the excesses of religion but settles into a solid speculative fiction yarn. Scalzi doesn’t shy away from the horror and gore. He doesn’t shy away from a crazy dark ending. Awesome. The moral if there is one would go something like religion isn’t evil, but twisted people can use religion to do some insanely evil shit.
Part of the discussion about faith hit close to home. There’s a statement made near the middle of the novel, “My faith is as third-made iron.” In the magic system of this story, iron which was ejected from a star, is known as first-made iron. Iron which has been a part of the geological processes of a planetary body is known as second-made iron. Iron smelted and worked by human hands is known as third-made iron. The magical power of first-made iron is stronger than that of second-made, is stronger than that of third-made. That quote then manages to express how I feel as the son of a minister and member of a very Christian family. I’ve struggled to express that feeling that “my faith is third-made” and somehow weaker. It’s something I think about a lot and it was kind of wild to find it expressed so vividly in the middle of such a powerful story.