Ship of Fools - Richard Paul

Reviewed on Usenet (or see Google archive).

Ship of Fools
Richard Paul Russo
Ace science fiction
ISBN 0441008933

Ship of Fools is an incredibly frustrating book; I can't decide if I really like it, or whether I think it's awful. Let's be clear though, I think the author can write, and write well - I was gripped despite my complaints - but the story? The story annoyed me a lot. And the ending? The ending annoyed me more.

I tried to avoid it, but Ship of Fools reminded me not of the original written Narrenschiff but rather the films Event Horizon, Alien and Cube. Which is a shame.

The generation ship Arganos has lost its way, its purpose. It has been fourteen years since it last made planetfall, and that was a disaster. This is a very traditional ship, with below deck crew, upper-class and upper-deck passengers, and ships officers. There are three principal characters: our hero is Bartolomeo Aguilera, advisor to his friend, Captain Nikos Costa. Both are naturally upper-deck nobles. Bartolomeo is physically handicapped, born with deformed arms, a damaged spine and a club foot - compensated for by ostentatious "shiny metal, plastic and steelglass" prosthetics and an exoskeleton.

Nikos Costa is in trouble as captain - he is losing his authority, challenged at every turn by the Bishop, head of the Church aboard the ship. Arganos is an interesting ship, sporting a huge cathedral, complete with stained glass windows on the outer hull... Why? No-one knows; the ship's records have been lost. The ship is old, the Bishop claims it has always existed. Certainly much aboard is broken and no longer understood - the tech level shown is peculiar, Bartolomeo sports a body more capable than those born able bodied, and yet we see no signs of any computers or similar high-tech. Yet there are complex weapons and energy shields; plenty of spaceships, but only very basic robots and remote sensors.

However, this is really a book which uses the trappings of hard SF (generation ships, alien artefacts, etc) to tell a story. The main story revolves around the power struggles on the ship - between Captain Nikos and the Bishop. I found the political plot-lines to be well drawn, with minimal scenes expressing all that needed to be said about the situation. Things look promising, very promising, this early in the book.

Bartolomeo is in the middle, and his life gets even more complex when a planet is detected - which the Bishop pre-emptively christens Antioch - and landfall made to explore. Bartolomeo is paired with one of the Bishop's clergy - the pious Father Veronica.

In a marvellously handled plot-line poor Bartolomeo falls in love, slowly, gradually, and completely. However, what brings them together also brings them horror - on Antioch Bartolomeo and Veronica find the grisly remains of a massacre, a strange building, filled with rows and rows of human bodies impaled on hooks...

I'm going to have to start skimming here to avoid spoilers, but back aboard Bartolomeo is dragged into class mutiny by his friend Par, a below-decks hunchback with a gift for making coffee. Throw in the collapse of his friendship with the captain, himself sinking into alcoholism, the continuing political manoeuvrings of the Bishop, and the discovery of a huge abandoned alien ship, and we have a cracking plot. Or do we? Sadly, erm, no. I don't think we do.

Elements - the massacre, the mutiny, the Church, etc - are all compelling on their own but don't tie together or get resolved as we might expect in a SF novel. By the time we reach the Cube type deaths in the alien ship I was losing patience; I like mystery, I like Big Dumb Objects, I like alien aliens, I like meditations on what it means for evil to exist - but I didn't think Ship of Fools's plot worked worked at all. Which is a pity as the story-telling is compelling, and scary...

Perhaps I'm dumb, perhaps I was reading this with the wrong genre expectations in mind, perhaps I missed what the author was trying to do, but by the time I reached the perfunctory ending I had lost all the enjoyment I had gained from the first half of Ship of Fools. It wasn't just the ending, I got the idea from the title that perhaps things weren't going to end well, that perhaps we were in for a parable about fools at the helm, about life's journey being a bit farcical, and then we die. I wouldn't have minded that, hey, I like grim books; I'm Irish, we're moody, but this just felt pointless...

I decided I was being harsh as I wrote the above. After all I read this in a day, and I thought some of the plot-lines were adroitly handled. I have ordered another by the same author - could I not recommend this with the caveat that the plot might not satisfy those who like mysteries revealed, and that it might not be mysterious enough for those who like novels about the numinous? Well, no. I started to think about Bartolomeo when I was writing the synopsis above. He is deformed, and wears protheses and an exo-skeleton. Much is made of this in the early part of the book. Why? It serves no part in the plot, other than to provide a crude reason as to why he is regarded as a social outsider. Albeit it a noble born upper-class outsider who regards the captain as a friend. Similarly, his friend Par, a well drawn character, is a dwarf. Why? Again, not plot element requires it, nor do these characters require the deformity to justify their personality or actions. If it is just colour, then why make such a big issue out of it? Examined in this way, Ship of Fools has enough unused Chekovian armament to fight a small, but very theatrical, war. Trust me, the major plot elements I tried to avoid spoiling are much more intrusive, and much more frustrating to have left unexplained.

So, how do I sum the above up? The worst good book I've read in a long time.

Posted: Tue - July 22, 2003 at 09:55 PM