It is almost a guarantee that if I read a book, cannot put it down, and have ideas swirling through my brain upon finishing it….. I will be writing about it in my blog. Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo is one of those books.
Originally published in 2001, I cannot believe that I hadn’t heard about this book before. Thanks goes out to Matt Staggs for writing an article called “So You Want to Read Generation Ship Fiction: Here’s Where to Start” and recommending this book in the article for the Unbound Worlds web site. I have found many of the articles on this site to be interesting, informative and worth checking out.
The book jacket describes Ship of Fools as follows:
“Home to generations of humans, the starship Argonos has wandered aimlessly throughout the galaxy for hundreds of years, desperately searching for other signs of life. Now, a steady, unidentifiable transmission lures them toward a nearby planet, where the grisly remains of a former colony await the crew. Haunted by what they have seen, the crew has no choice but to follow when another signal beckons the Argonos into deep space – and into the dark heart of an alien mystery….”
The narrator is named Bartolomeo and is the adviser to Nikos, the captain of the Argonos. Theirs is a complicated relationship as evidenced in the opening paragraphs of the novel. Also in these first paragraphs is an almost palpable sense of foreboding. I have included them below.
“We had not made landfall in more than fourteen years. One disastrous choice of a star after another. The captain viewed this string of failures as absurdly bad luck; the bishop, as divine intervention. Either way, I saw it as prelude to the captain’s downfall, which almost certainly Meant my own downfall as well.
When we detected a transmission from the world that would later be called Antioch, I sensed opportunity. But opportunity for whom? The captain, or his enemies? It was impossible to say. The captain’s position was tenuous at best, and everything was uncertain aboard the Argonos.” Chapter 1, Page 3
There are many themes running through this captivating novel. I am going to touch on just a few of them.
One theme is the class conflict between the top siders and the down siders. Down siders do all the scut work on the ship and are not allowed to leave it. Top siders are the ruling elite. All captains come from this group. There is also the crew who run the ship. They follow the captains orders but have a set of rules all their own. Add to this a religious group lead by the Bishop. One of the things that I found most interesting about the social stratification of the ship was that the captain managed the ship and made a majority of decisions, but it was the Bishop who determined which star system they traveled to.
Another theme is about making decisions and the consequences of those decisions. At one point Bartolomeo is lamenting that the captain should not take advice from him because some of his decisions had been unsuccessful.
“‘Everything you said is true,’ Nikkos added, ‘but it’s not that simple. Your choices, your decisions, were not necessarily the wrong choices. Sometimes, they were the right choices, the moral choices. They just didn’t work out.'” – Chapter 50, page 333
This really resonated with me. It reminded me of some advice I was given after dealing with a particularly unpleasant situation. I was told that “You do the best that you can with the tools and information that you have at that time.”
Another theme of this book was what is evil? Can we even comprehend pure evil? I am not going to go into this theme too deeply because I would give away too much. But it is good to keep this theme in mind when reading the book.
Some of the other themes of the novel include faith, purpose, and interpretation of objects and situations that are alien (this is a sub-category of the decision theme).
I highly recommend the novel Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo. That said, this novel isn’t for everyone. There are some suspense building sequences and descriptions of grisly remains that may be disturbing for some readers. Well written with an intriguing story, this novel is worth reading.