Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo
Posted Winter 2019
I read this book because it was a selection in my book club, Fermented Fiction. My friend Reid selected it, and he prefaced the choice by telling us that it was something like Alien - a bit of ye old space horror. I had never heard of it, but was quite interested by that premise. The print edition is no longer available - so I bought it on Kindle and started to read.
The review 3/5
I will be perfectly honest - the book started pulled me in and then just kind of fizzled. I thought the pacing was excellent for the majority of the book, and was hotly anticipating something more than what was on offer. It was unfortunate, because I became thoroughly invested in the main character, Bartolomeo.
Told from a first-person perspective, Bartolomeo was born on the Argonos, the main ship populated by humans in the novel. Far-flung into the future when human beings are simply wandering the stars, looking to colonize other planets and meet with aliens, the setting was to some degree a little bleak and nihilistic. There was a class system on the Argonos, and the Bartolomeo was born into it, though he was born with a number of physical deformities. For example, his hands were essentially set into his shoulders. Much to his Bartolomeo's fortune, advanced technology meant that he had protheses installed, giving him mechanical arms. He also had an exoskeleton, owing to incomplete segmentation of his spine. However, these infirmities meant that Bartolomeo played the role of the outsider throughout the book.
The story featured heavy Christian themes, and I feel like they were incompletely explored, like so much of the novel. Bartolomeo's main antagonist is the scheming Bishop, head of the Church on the vessel. He also falls in love with Father Veronica, a female priest. I thought 'Father' was a nice touch - implying that the Church had advanced enough to allow women to join the clergy, but it was clearly still bound to the dogma of ages gone by.
Ship of Fools was about the Argonos encountering an alien vessel, shortly after finding a planet that was formerly inhabited by humans (who were found slaughtered). There was a signal from the alien ship that led the Argonos from the planet. It was enormous and mysterious and without much overt life. The enigma of the ship was the main conflict in the novel, aside from all of the interpersonal relationships that were seen from Bartolomeo's point of view.
The lack of any kind of closure was a theme in the novel, from Bartolomeo's completely impossible sexual desire for Father Veronica (due to her vows), to the failing to understand anything about the aliens, to the underwhelming climax where some characters heroically sacrifice themselves to save the rest of humanity from the aliens. The problem: it felt disjointed because of the lack of meaning. It was too opaque. It might have been saved if there was some overarching point to it, but the only thing I could glean from the thematic choice was something nihilistic and defeated. Artistically valid, sure, but really not my cup of tea.
Overall, I was kind of disappointed by the book. That said, Russo's prose is excellent - he is quite a polished writer. There were quite a few bright points, so I would certainly read his other work, but I cannot say for sure that I would recommend it to anyone unless they were a die-hard sci-fi fan.