Like popular fiction, there is a mainstream of science fiction. Located in the tepid flow are authors like Alastair Reynolds, Brandon Sanderson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mira Grant, Robert J. Sawyer, and many, many others. Their works present new spins on old ideas, feature serviceable to competent prose, and are fun but do not challenge. They are comfort food: Golden Era genre in contemporary clothes. John Scalzi is another such middle-of-the-road author, a fact underlined by his 2009 novella The God Engines Entertaining, but easily forgettable.
Tephe is captain of an intergalactic spaceship powered by a god. Remaining nameless throughout the story, the god lies in chains in a compartment of the ship, watched over by a powerful religious order. Capable of teleporting the whole ship to any point in the universe, its skills are useful to the ruling bishopry in maintaining their grip on power. Unheard of events in the universe occurring with more frequency, the bishopry decide to send the captain on a mission to quell the outbursts. The god’s power revealing itself in ways Tephe would rather it not, surviving the mission may be more than his mortal soul can handle.
A mini-space opera, Scalzi employs all the tropes and devices the sub-genre of science fiction is famous for. Powerful evil, simplistic moral buttons, thin characterization, a gratuitous sex scene, galaxy spanning takeovers, and a final showdown of epic proportions, those who love the glitz and glamor of sci-fi will want to check it out. Scalzi’s writing not a hindrance, the story moves at a rapid pace as Tephe finds his comfortable position as starship captain becoming ever more tenuous. For action and scope, this is a short piece space opera junkies can mainline.
As can easily be inferred from the review thus far, The God Engines is simply not my style. Popcorn sci-fi, the story is contrived fiction which possesses surface value, only, and does not aspire to beyond commercial success. For those looking for literature with depth, it will be a disappointment, while for those who just want thrills and entertainment, it will be a blast. There exists potential, however. Should Scalzi ever decide to flesh out the story into a novel length work, it’s possible the additional details would provide better background and setting, and thus improve the chances of having more layered characterization and engaging storyline. As it stands, the story flows in the mainstream: in one eye and out the other. If you want a more profound story with a similar premise, read Peter Watts’ “A Word for Heathens”.
I will close with the following piece of melodrama—err, dialogue—from the story as proof to the novella’s B-movie stance:
‘“And then let those ships kill you?” Shalle smiled and kissed Tephe. “You silly man. You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said. Our lives are Our Lord’s. I’ve made peace with the fact that I am going to die today, ean. One way or another. This way I get to save you. And the ship and the crew you love. You will live because of me.’