The God Engines opens with what, along with the opening line of jPod, is now one of my favourite first lines: "It was time to whip the god."
Immediately, John Scalzi establishes a sense of difference between our universe and the one in which this book is set. In this universe, monolatrism is the order of the day. Captain Tephe and the crew of the Righteous worship a god, conveniently called "Our Lord." Captured gods serve as engines for their starships; bound by iron, the gods warp space-time to deliver ships to their destinations.
What a twist on religion and one's relationship with one's god! Faith quite literally empowers gods—this is not a new idea, but turning captive gods into starship engines is pretty nifty. And Scalzi uses the situation to write all sorts of interesting conversations between Tephe and the god that powers the Righteous, mostly about the nature of faith, gods, and one's devotion to one's god.
The most interesting motif of The God Engines is faith. Not only does faith empower gods, but it comes in various flavours of diminished quality. Tephe's faith is the weakest, for it has been handed down to him over the generators. By contrast, "first-made faith" of new converts is the strongest. And with several gods aiming to take a bite out of His Lord, Tephe is sent to a planet untouched by gods and ignorant of the theological conflict taking place in the universe at large.
The idea that converts are more fanatically devout in their belief makes sense. Theirs is a raw belief, one that inspired them to choose to worship their god. Believers who were raised (or indoctrinated) to believe, on the other hand, do it by rote. Many of them are devout, but their minds have been moulded into faithfulness not by a god, but by a parent.
Considering the somewhat predictable twist that leads into a downer ending, it would be easy to label The God Engines anti-religious in nature. After all, it portrays gods as capricious creatures who essentially enslave societies. Science and engineering have been erased, replaced with faith-on-demand. It's not that Tephe and his people use gods to power starships because that is a superior form of power—it's because they know of no other way, although such ways do exist. That deception on the part of His Lord is an essential part of Tephe's crisis of faith, which ultimately demonstrates that this book isn't about religion at all, and thus isn't anti-religious. It's all about faith.
Let us not conflate the two, for although religion often involves faith, faith does not always mean religion. The religious parts of the society in this book are dismal, almost dystopian. The rulers are called the Bishopry Militant, a terrible juxtaposition of two authoritarian terms. Although it does not come up per se, we get the idea that this is not the sort of society that kindly tolerates freedom of expression. Blasphemy is high on the list of forbidden acts. Obedience is the second-most prized virtue, especially from ship captains. The most-prized virtue, of course, is faith.
If religion is the stern, morally-hidebound uncle who's no fun at family reunions, faith is the spunky cousin everyone loves, even though she makes everyone just a little bit uncomfortable. Faith is the more fervent sibling of confidence; they are really the same feeling, only one is reserved for special occasions. What Scalzi does is literalize what we all, internally, understand about faith, because we all have faith in something, even if we are not religious. And faith, true faith, that unconditional and utter belief, is powerful. It can capture the imagination, inspire acts of unfathomable beauty or untenable ugliness, and result in the most amazing events. We have fought wars because of faith. We went to the moon because of faith. So in that context, using faith to power a starship is not all that strange.
And in the darkest hour, after Tephe has learned the awful truth, what sustains him? What gives him the ability to keep going, knowing that he and his crew are doomed? Well, super-sleuth that you are, guessed it: faith. For the sake of spoilers, I won't say faith in what. Maybe one's god, maybe one's humanity, or maybe just faith in some generic sense. But it's enough to keep Tephe going even in the face of certain destruction.
Lest I mislead you in my positive discussion of the Power of Faith, let me be clear: this is not a warm-fuzzy book. Without going into detail, there is not much Happily Ever After happening here. The God Engines is about terrible revelation and unrecoverable betrayal. And maybe it could have gone differently for Tephe and the Righteous. Part of me wishes it did, of course.
There is an intriguing sense of minimalism about The God Engines. As a novella, it is short, and Scalzi wastes no time in crafting a tantalizing glimpse at this world. It left me wanting more, and that frustrated me for a time. Then I realized I was being silly: books should leave you wanting more (in a good, curious way). So the more I consider it, the more I feel that a novella suits this story.
Sometimes the plot is rushed. Once the Righteous arrives at the untouched planet, it takes no time at all for the story to skip to the conversion of one of its tribes. Another story, another writer, might have drawn this out, added characters and relationships, really turned this into a novel. And if I were being lazy, I could call this poor writing and call it a day, review over.
But then I would be ignoring the fact that Scalzi chose to write this as a novella. That is what I mean by minimalism. He intended these elisions, and they are as integral to the book as the commentary on faith.
The only place where The God Engines suffers as a result is its characterization, which is lacking. None of the characters truly stand out in my mind as three-dimensional. But as fans of the short story know, length is not a necessary condition for good characterization—but sometimes it can make poor characterization a little more adequate. Tephe, Andso, and Shalle are all fairly stock roles with fairly conventional relationships. As much as I enjoyed reading The God Engines, I keep coming back to this flaw; it is all the more glaring for everything else that is right about this book.
Some books are like that: one small detail mars the rest. Some books can bear the flaw, others unravel … The God Engines survives, but only just. Only because, for some reason, I managed to see its potential, if not its actuality. And so even though it did not quite deliver, I still had faith.