Dec 29 2010 11:12am

God is a spaceship: Sharon Shinn’s Archangel

Archangel by Sharon ShinnIf I can find three examples of something, that’s enough for me to consider it a subgenre. “God is a spaceship” is a subgenre, though a rather odd one. The first thing is that God is a spaceship — there’s a spaceship which has apparently godlike powers and which the characters truly think is God, but which the reader can recognise as being technological. Then there’s a planet, inhabited by people who know God is real, and up there in orbit keeping an eye on them. The first example is Frank Herbert’s Destination Void (1966) sequence, of which the most memorable is The Jesus Incident (1978). Then there’s Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming Saga (1992-95). And there’s Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series, which begins with Archangel (1996). David Weber’s Off Armageddon Reef  (2007) is clearly doing something related.

It’s Archangel I’ve just re-read and which has made me think about what a very odd idea this was for somebody to write about even once. You have a planet. You have people on it, who all live at a specified tech level according to the will of God. And God is quite explicitly a computer. Archangel is a traditional romance story set on this strange planet. The joy of the book is simultaneously exploring the weird world and seeing the characters God has destined for each other struggle with that. They’re great characters. Oh, and one of them is an angel—a literal winged angel who can fly half way across the continent. Genetic engineering, of course.

I read Archangel in 1997. I’m fairly sure I read it from the library because somebody recommended it online, and then bought the paperback because I liked it. I’ve generally enjoyed Shinn’s work since, but I got bored with the later books in this series, which got in the way of my remembering how much I enjoyed this first one. The thing that makes this so great is the slowly unfolding hints about the way the world is and how it got to be that way. The later books tell you too much, and didn’t have characters I liked so much, so the absurdity of the whole thing started to annoy me. I am very good at suspending my disbelief as long as I am having fun. Tell me a story and am already inclined to believe. I will go along with the most ridiculous things as long as the story holds me. If I start to nitpick about science you have already lost me. So for me this is an example of a series that starts out great and fades out. Read the first one, then stop.

So in Archangel I bought the angels who could really fly, who had to have children with mortals, whose God was interested in genetics and who tracked everyone though the “kiss” implanted in their arm at birth. I had no problem with the evil atheist archangel Raphael, or the weather control, or the extremely nice nomads. I thoroughly enjoyed the plot and putting the world together. I liked Rachel, the girl who had been a nomad and a slave and was now to marry the archangel Gabriel and be angelica whether she wanted to or not. I enjoyed it again reading it now—Shinn’s a good writer, she writes things that are easy to sink into.

But I can see that there’s a potential scientific issue with the series—which is interesting. This is a series that looks like fantasy. It looked like fantasy in 1997, and it looks even more like fantasy now. “An excellent fantasy romance” says the cover quote (from Locus). But when you read it, God is a computer and it’s not fantasy at all, it’s science fiction, and finding out the way that it’s SF is half the fun. But if the science is silly then is it fantasy after all? Actually, no. having bad science doesn’t make something fantasy, it just makes it SF with bad science. Handwave science is an honourable SF tradition. Maybe it isn’t possible to genetically engineer humanoid angels who couldn’t really fly, but never mind.

The “romance” part of that quote is accurate, though. And what we have here is an old-fashioned romance. Actual romance novels aren’t like this any more. Shinn gives us two great characters destined for each other who fight and argue and have misunderstandings all through the book and only kiss on the last page. Along the way we have last minute rescues, we have God smiting, we have a world and several human and angelic societies to explore, and we have a number of very interesting minor characters. Shinn is good at people, she’s good at people from weird cultures and getting the feel of them right.

I picked this up to re-read now because I read a deeply enthusiastic review from Calico Reaction which reminded me how much I had enjoyed it when I first read it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. Pamster
Another instance of "God is a spaceship" occurs in the novel "Courtship Rite" by Donald Kingsbury, which is an absolutely incredible, mind-blowing novel but is sadly out of print.
The transplanted humans of the impossibly harsh desert planet Geta believe that they were brought by "God" to this place, and have prayers and ceremonies marking "god's" passage across the sky. Descendants of the spaceship's biological engineers have become priests, and those who believe that humans evolved from local lifeforms are heretics and athiests. The characters are well-drawn and will stay with you for a very long time. Absolutely the best book about cannibals you will ever read.
Joe Sherry
2. jsherry
I never did go on to read Jovah's Angel, but I am often struck by just how much I enjoyed this book. I've read it two or three times over the last decade, and you're right. A big part of the joy is how Shinn reveals the world to the reader.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Pamster: You're right! I love Courtship Rite (UK title Geta) but I hadn't thought of it like that. Though it doesn't have God/spaceship continuing to meddle the way most of the others do. Look, a subgenre!
S Cooper
4. SPC
The later ones do show us a lot more clues about what's going on behind the curtain - I still like Jovah's Angel (shows a downside of the God spaceship) and Angelica (for the romance). Sharon Shinn has written most of my favorite romantic fantasy novels (Heart of Gold is my current favorite).
Matt Gantner
5. gantner
Good article. Thanks.
I just have to reference "Desolation Road" by Ian Mcdonald. There is an AI (I think that is right) orbiting Mars overseeing teraforming but also deploying 'Angels' to work on the ground. This is a rather small part of the story but it came to mind as I read through this. I never considered God as a Spaceship as a sort of genre prior to this. Neal Asher has a character that he revisits sometimes called "The Engineer" who fits this idea. To the reader is obiviously technologically-based but to characters in the book, god-like.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Gantner: Insightful comment! Yes, it certainly works as one. It doesn't have the ignorant generations most of these books have, but it'd also earlier than any of these except Herbert's Void series. It may be a seminal influence!
7. artfulmagpie
I would add, as a sort of subgenre to "God is a Spaceship," the "the whole world is actually just a generation ship and the god(s) is/are the computer programs running the ship" idea. This is often supplemented by "angel" type figures who are generally descendents of the ship's crew. There are at least two good examples of this I can name without thinking too hard: "The Book of the Long Sun" series by Gene Wolfe, and the "Jacob's Ladder" series by Elizabeth Bear.
shane aeris
8. slaeris
What about Philip K Dick? Yah ON a spaceship.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
All the ones I listed have an explicitly Judaeo-Christian feel to them. The spaceship isn't just powerful, it's a clear analog of the Old Testament God. In Archangel, it flattens a mountain because they don't worship it on time. And Card is, of course, redoing the Book of Mormon.
10. CarlosSkullsplitter
Science fiction descended from American magazine SF has had that occult strain of God-in-the-machine nearly from its beginning. I won't name the obvious name (whose versions are still making money) but it's a story idea that clearly had a lot of resonance with Astounding's editor, John W. Campbell. UFO mythology, another variant of the same basic idea, comes from the same milieu: Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing, did quite a bit to promote Richard Shaver's schizophrenic fantasies, which directly fed into the flying saucer craze.

Of course authors have used these concepts without having any stake in them, part of the crazy idea attic and perpetual rummage sale of traditional SF. There's a fair amount of Fortean SF out there as well, most recently including Ken MacLeod and Kage Baker.
11. Calico Reaction
How funny! I saw the top of this post and said to myself, "How cool! I just read this! I wonder what Jo Walton has to say!" and then when I got to the end, I had a squee moment. Thanks for the shout-out, and for discussing this book. I'm still flabbergasted it's taken me so long to read it. :)
Joseph Blaidd
12. SteelBlaidd
"As you are an arogant man, she will make you humble."

Need to re-read this one.

I think it's interesting to see how diferent authours treat what having a very active god does to religeous argument.
Lisa Parkin
13. LParkin
Thanks for giving this much-needed insight! I have been a Sharon Shinn fan for a while- having loved her Thirteenth House series.

I was always felt reluctant to try out these books because they seem so different from her others. I will definitely check this out, though! It seems very unique- plus I love a good romantic fantasy! :)

14. hapax
Huh. I rather liked this one, although the romance annoyed me (and I usually *like* a good old-fashioned romance), but I'm surprised that you didn't mention the part that really captivated me -- Shinn's luscious, evocative descriptions of the choral singing.

Is there a subgenre of "musical sf"?
Jonathan Garber
15. LinkTheValiant
Is there a subgenre of "musical sf"?

L.E. Modesitt, Jr wrote The Spellsong Cycle, where music is the means of manipulating power, and a professional musician is forced into a fantastical world where she must make her way through use of her abilities.

On topic, have "God as a spaceship" stories been written with analogs to eastern religions? Obviously the major monotheistic religions are easier to work with for this sort of writing, but as much as I hold to my own beliefs it would be nice to see the lesser-known (at least in the west) faiths being used in fiction of this kind.
Cathy Mullican
16. nolly
For musical SF, there's also McCaffrey's Crystal Singer series, and rather a lot of short works, including the podcast anthology Theme and Variations.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Link the Valiant: There's Lord of Light.
18. makeda
"The Tides of God" by Ted Reynolds where God is a distant satellite beaming insanity to Earth during periodic periods of our history. Wild. Makes me look at the current rise in fundamentism with different eyes.
Stephanie Leary
19. sleary
I agree that the later books in the series explain too much and introduce too many unlikeable characters, but I do love Alleluia in Jovah's Angel.

I used to participate in a number of SF reading groups, and Archangel is one of the few romance-heavy books that both men and women always loved, once they were persuaded to read it.

The musical descriptions in these books are stunning. Shinn makes me wish I were more musical, when I reread these.
David Dyer-Bennet
20. dd-b
I was thinking Lord of Light, but in fact the spaceship isn't still around; just the crew, and the passengers.

On the other hand, Chalker's Flux and Anchor books belong in this sub-genre (unless you include the specifically Judaeo-Christian view as defining).

What about Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books?
21. KaylynnZ
I had always included this book in the subgenre of "fantasy novels claiming to be sf because it gives them more street cred". That said, I've always wondered if Sharon Shinn had read the Pern books by McCaffrey and thought to herself, "I can do this better but without the silly time travel." The characters have a lot of parallels, with the slave girl raised to a powerful position but forced to marry/sleep with the powerful guy who can fly. She gets along well with his half-brother who wants to marry a girl tradition says he can never be with. That sort of thing.
Ian Gazzotti
22. Atrus
I would say Ventus by Karl Schroeder kinda falls into this category, even if it's set on a planet rather than a spaceship.
23. Jinian
I got Archangel from the library as a result of this post, and I'm glad I did. I'd liked the Gillengaria novels a lot but bounced off a later angel one previously. And then, serendipitously, I also got Pamela Sargent's Seed Seeker, which falls into the God-spaceship genre. Good luck all around!

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