John Scalzi has written that he intended The God Engines to be his attempt at a fantasy. If that was truly his aim, he missed; The God Engines is a very fine short space opera.
True, many of the fripperies of fantasy are attached to this story: a hierarchical religion that controls the universe of the characters; a protagonist who is a military man of skill, but who is also as religious as he needs to be to advance in this society; and gods, both the beings who, as slaves, power spaceships through mental effort (that is, the “god engines”), and the supreme being whom the protagonist and his species worship. One might especially be forgiven for thinking of the gods as being the stuff of fantasy. But it is at least as easy to think of these gods as aliens who have developed far beyond the species that has managed to enslave them. In fact, looking at the “gods” through that lens makes this a better book.
Captain Ean Tephe has his own ship, powered by one of these “gods,” a particularly stubborn example who has been known to take big bites out of crew members who get too close to it. A ship’s god is a being who was defeated by the god worshipped by his captors. This particular ship’s god is more pugnacious than many, and must be forced by threat of torture — and sometimes actual torture — to propel the ship through space-time. He is ultimately controlled only through the crew’s faith in their own god, which explains why clergy is stationed aboard every ship. But the god engines are becoming more difficult to control, and that apparently has something to do with the level of belief in the supreme god. Those who believe in the supreme god only because they have been brought up to do so give that god a power that is less than the power of an original convert, one who has never heard of the god before. And so Captain Tephe is tasked with traveling to a planet that is innocent of any faith, in order that his ship’s priests might convert them and offer greater power and glory to their god.
If you know Scalzi’s work at all, you know that things do not go exactly as planned. It is how he manipulates his premise and the machinery that supports it that makes this novella such fun to read. From my perspective, this novella is also a comment on religion in general, which makes it all the more interesting and gives the novella a depth belied by its arch cover art.
It isn’t at all surprising that The God Engines was nominated for a 2009 Nebula Award: it’s that good. You’ll want to read it in a single sitting, so make sure you have a couple of hours free when you start it. And keep some thinking time free, too, to deal with the ideas it will provoke.