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Bookends: Life in a World Powered by God Engines Depends on Faith October 24, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Life in a World Powered by God Engines Depends on Faith

By Dan Davidson

August 22, 2012,   Star, Aug. 24/12

– 800 words –


The God Engines

By John Scalzi

Subterranean Press

136 pages



Given the speed restrictions of Einsteinian physics, it’s no wonder that science fiction writers who want to tell stories in which people move quickly through space from place to place have had to come up with all sorts of ways of travelling faster than the speed of light.

The speed of light is the top speed, after all, and that goes for what we can transmit as well as what we can see. So when NASA scientists watched breathlessly while Curiosity touched down on Mars a few weeks back, the distance between here and there is such that they were actually cheering for an event that had taken place some 10 to 15 minutes before they got to see it. When they send an order to the robot on Mars to tell it to do something, it takes that long for the order to get there, and that long again before they know if it worked.

That’s too slow for stories, whether they be written on the printed page or shown of a screen. Things just have to move a whole lot faster that that.

Various types of warp drives and hyperspace dodges are the usual answer. Some kind of force field effect removes the ship from the actual universe and allows it to jump from place to place through some kind of other space, or there’s a wormhole, a stargate, or some sort of folded space phenomenon.

Whatever the explanation given by a particular writer, you can bet that most of them involve some sort of pseudo-science that allows it all to happen if you are just willing to suspend your belief a bit.

How about a method that actually requires you to believe?

John Scalzi has concocted a universe in which belief is an essential component to all the familiar aspects of space travel. The title of the book actually does tell much of the story. Human technology is powered by creatures of immense power which have somehow been trapped by humanity and forced to work for them, providing energy, space travel, interstellar communication – all manner of things that we would normally have developed machines to handle for us.

These slave gods – perhaps better referred to as demons, but usually known as “the Defiled – have been given over to humanity as the gift of the One True God, which humans worship. The power of their faith in this god, plus the power of control offered by iron, allows humanity to force the lesser gods to supply the power to run cities and move great ships through the vastness of space.

Scalzi introduces us to this world in this clever short novel – a novella, really – which was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2009. It’s an intricate world, where one of a ship captain’s duties is to inspire and uplift the faith of his crew to enable them to draw more on the power of their chained and defiled god engine to travel, to battle, to perform all manner of normal spaceship functions: life support, communication – you name it.

We enter this world at a crisis point, a time during which the empire of the Bishopric Militant, as it is known, is coming under threat by unknown forces. These seek to diminish the faith base of the empire’s god by destroying entire planetary populations and thus reducing the number of his worshippers.

Captain Ean Tephe is sent out on what is explained to him as a missionary expedition, to acquire new followers for his faith, to go to a planet that has never before been exposed to the religion of the Bishopric Militant and convert the population.

What happens there tests his faith and upends his understanding of his religion, his duty and his Lord.

This is not a story that ends happily for the central characters we are following. Were Scalzi to return to this universe to explore it more thoroughly he would have to drop in at some earlier point before this crisis and spend more time developing the depth of this society and its complexities. That would make a very good book.

The novels in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series convince me that he is capable of really digging into a created universe and shaping a three dimensional tale.  This short novel, which I enjoyed quite a lot, was nevertheless much more like a preliminary sketch for something that could be a lot bigger. It raises a lot of moral issues along the way, but skims by them like a stone skipping across a pond.






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