Ship of Fools: This dated award winner still has some influence

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsShip of Fools by Richard Paul Russo science fiction book reviewsShip of Fools by Richard Paul Russo

Richard Paul Russo published Ship of Fools in 2001 and it won the Philip K Dick Award for that year. I read it when it came out but only remembered two or three scenes from it (powerful scenes, though, I should say). The re-read surprised me and maybe disappointed me slightly. One thing seems clear. In 2001 Russo was playing with concepts that would show up in later writers’ work with regularity in the intervening fourteen years; the “generation ship” and the idea of  a social and economic underclass is addressed by Brenda Cooper in her YA series RUBY’S SONG, and more pointedly in the graphic novel and movie Snowpiercer. I think Russo even influenced Joss Whedon, because some scenes from the TV show Firefly, particularly those that involve the Reavers, mirror shocking and horrifying scenes from the novel.

The ship itself is the Argonos, a generation starship that has been in space for so long its original mission has been long forgotten. Originally, officer appointments were probably based on skill, but now “Captain” is an elected position and the ship is run by a council. The council is made up only of upper-level families, while the hundreds  of people who live in the lower levels and do manual labor have no vote and no voice. When the book opens, the current captain, Nikos, is facing unrest and is vulnerable to the politicking of a manipulative, ambitious bishop. The narrator, Nikos’s boyhood friend Bartolomeo Aguilera, is worried that Nikos will be deposed unless he stops the ship at an upcoming star system and checks for liveable planets and any possible human colonies. The ship always hopes to find a human colony who will welcome them, but they also lower their huge Harvesters to hoover up organic matter that is broken down and becomes nutrients, fertilizer and a power source on board the Argonos. On the last planet, they found humans, but Bishop Soldano’s harsh attempts at a (forced) mass conversion wore out the ship’s welcome quickly.

Bartolomeo is an “outsider,” as much as it is possible to be on a generation ship. He was born with physical defects, and wears gleaming prosthetics to adjust for them. The prosthetics give him additional strength but they also mark him as different; although frankly, his personality doesn’t make exactly make him Mr. Congeniality. Bartolomeo is smart, skeptical, observant and thoughtful, which makes him a useful friend to Nikos, even though Nikos has no trouble throwing Bartolomeo to the political wolves whenever it’s necessary.

The Argonos finds a habitable planet with the remains of an earlier human colony. The field team that goes down finds drinkable water, breathable air, buildings falling into ruins and ultimately, a killing ground: a basement filled with the remains of slaughtered humans. Based on this discovery, the council decides that the planet is not safe. The Argonos moves on, and then encounters a starship floating cold and dark in space, a ship that could not have been built by humans.

Russo uses three major characters to play out questions of mission and morality. Much of the tension in the book revolves around faith. The bishop insists that the original purpose of the Argonos was solely pastoral and completely religious. There is evidence on the ship that supports this. For one thing, the ship has a cathedral built into its center. For another, it has a stained glass window that reveals a dramatic secret midway through the book. Although the ship’s archives had been destroyed in an unsuccessful uprising two hundred years earlier, the Church’s own archives are intact.

Bartolomeo personifies agnosticism and skepticism, Bishop Soldano is the face of hypocrisy, a blatantly ambitious churchman who has no personal faith, and Father Veronica, who is a believer and a mystic represents faith. As a foil to the bishop, Father Veronica is a bit too good to be true; mouthing sentiments about “all paths to God,” but she also ups the ante on the creepiness factor of the alien ship. The bishop considers the ship to be “evil;” Veronica won’t go that far, but she says it’s dangerous. As teams begin exploring, the fatalities mount, all of them looking weird, accidental, or suicidal.

The scenes on the alien ship build up the tension, but much of this book is about religion, politics and leadership. This is probably why, once you get past the three main characters, the characterization gets thin. Nikos has a wife. She is jealous of his friendship with Bartolomeo. That is all we ever know about her, even when she accompanies Bartolomeo to the alien ship. There are various techie-types, navigators, scientists, and so on, equally distributed by gender, who sound very much alike and are basically interchangeable. An orphan boy attaches himself to Bartolomeo. There is a clever dwarf, who comes the closest to being a fully rounded character, but Russo seems to fall back on physical differences (a short person, a person with prosthetics) to create a sense of otherness, rather than meditate on the ways one would feel isolated in a ship full of people.

Having said that, Bartolomeo experiences things that make him change his world-view at least slightly, and Nikos, surprisingly, puts aside his politics to make a choice that redeems him at the end.

In a year that has been filled with discussion and acrimony about the role of women in science fiction, whether as characters or creators, it is interesting to read a book from 2001 in which women having roles, whether the minor techie roles, or major ones like Father Veronica, goes without saying. Veronica, while not a cliché, is drawn to represent certain things rather than be an actual person, but her voice carries, and Bishop Soldano is no better realized. The inequality on Argonos is socioeconomic, not race or gender based. It made me realize just how much ground we’ve lost in the past decade-and-a-half.

While I can’t rave about Ship of Fools, it is an interesting book to read now because it provides some insight into our entry into the 21st century and the kinds of issues we were dealing with as a society. It’s good to know your roots, right?


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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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