Review: Ship of Fools, Richard Paul Russo

08Dec09

Title: Ship of Fools

Author: Richard Paul Russo

Publisher: Ace

Year published: 2001

Other info: Won the 2001 Philip K Dick Award.

Recommended: Yes, to those who’d like to see religion (specifically a futuristic Catholicism) treated with respect but not blind endorsement, those who don’t mind a lack of answers, and those who are comfortable reading a thought-provoking book that is nonetheless quite flawed.

Spoilers: Yes, many.

Commentary on science fiction often offers up the idea that aliens are metaphors; for the unknown, for the strange, or for humanity itself. This is certainly true in Ship of Fools, and the metaphor is stated quite plainly: the aliens are evil; they are an evil that comes out of the unknown, stopping short the arrogant intrusion of man.

There were many wonderful aspects of this book. The narrator, Bartolomeo, is a canny choice; though born to the upper class, his deformities keep him on the outside of their society; he’s rejected by both the underclass and the ruling class, and so has a unique perspective on both. At times he felt like a blank slate, merely a camera through which we could examine the forces at play, but a few brief moments and interactions brought him to life. With his human characters, Russo avoids stereotype and generalization. Even the antagonist of the piece, the Bishop, displays a small measure of humanity. When he acknowledges to Bartolomeo that he does not believe in God, his words conveyed a denied yearning for belief that transformed him from paper-thin monster to complicated human being in a few simple lines. Bartolomeo’s love for a priest, Father Veronica, and his single night with a woman who looks like her, similarly add depth to his character. Father Veronica herself was the most consistently complex and interesting, from Bartolomeo’s very first description of her. He’s not sure how to regard her, because she is neither a hypocrite, like the Bishop, nor a fanatic; she is a true believer. It is Father Veronica’s faith that shapes the moral and spiritual debate at the heart of the book.

The other characters, and there were many, were mostly forgettable. While Russo avoids short-hand and stereotype, he fails to bring them to life in any convincing way. They are merely vehicles for plot. For the most part, the minor characters’ names are distinctive, which helps to differentiate them when they become a quickly shifting list of the dead and the endangered, and for the most part it isn’t necessary to keep track. The lack of strong characterization squandered an opportunity to build tension and dread, though. I had no particular attachment to any of those names, and when they died or otherwise were shuffled off the narrative coil, I had no emotional reaction.

The plot reminded me a lot of Rendevous with Rama—only much more sinister. The generation ship Argonos, while in the midst of a political power struggle between its captain and its religious leader, discovers first a colony ravaged by an unknown aggressor and then an apparently abandoned alien ship, massive in size, which begins to slowly claim the lives and sanity of those who explore it. The presence of the alien ship intensifies the divisions on the Argonos. The Bishop, though fascinated with it, declares it an object of evil. Bartolomeo leads the expedition inside the ship, and argues that they must stay and explore it.

The mystery of the ship was compelling; its architecture was bizarre, its purpose unknown, its effects mystifying. The theological and philosophical questions posed around it lead to the central scene (in my opinion), where Father Veronica and Bartolomeo float together outside the Argonos, looking at the gigantic stained glass window depicting the crucifixion, the apparent message and mission of the Argonos. In this scene Father Veronica explains her faith, hovering between the massive threat of the alien ship and the symbol which has guided her.

Russo, though, doesn’t move past the philosophical. The ship, as it turns out, is just evil. It’s a construct, a metaphor, and nothing more. It has no purpose, no explanation, no complexity. It’s merely Bad, and the end of the novel simply involves getting away from it. Nothing is explained, because there is nothing to explain. The strange architecture, the weird symptoms displayed by the explorers, and the destruction of the colony have no reason or cause. Their only purpose is to be threatening and evil.

I’m a firm believer in the use of aliens as metaphor, but they have to be more than that. I want a story, not a philosophical construct. In that sense Ship of Fools fails. It sacrifices story to message, albeit an interesting and conflicting message. It doesn’t feel preachy—it just feels incomplete.

So much of this book was a joy to read, the ending left me feeling frustrated and betrayed. The book did part of its job: it made me think. It was probably the best treatment of religion (and atheism) that I’ve come across in a long time, exploring both belief and non-belief without preaching either perspective, and allowing for the notion of a religious person who is not a fool, a monster, a hypocrite, or a fanatic. For that reason I longed to love this book. But it failed to exist as a story, and to satisfy the mystery it provided. There are no answers here; perhaps that’s the point. Sometimes all we have is uncertainty. But the real truth of that sentiment, as far as I’m concerned, is that even when you have all the information, it doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t answer the “why.” Russo leaves out the who and the what as well, undercutting his own message. As far as we know, the answers could be there. He just didn’t bother to tell us.

Note: Interestingly, this was later republished under the title UNTO LEVIATHAN. I think both titles are evocative, and both suit the book and the themes.

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