Ship of Fools

by Richard Paul Russo

Published by Ace

370 pages, 2001

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The Layers of SF

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


Richard Paul Russo's Ship of Fools is a science fiction novel set in an unspecified far-future, long after the Earth has been made uninhabitable, presumably because of human mismanagement. It takes place on a spaceship, the Argonos, which is the only home its inhabitants and generations of their ancestors have ever known. It describes the events surrounding the ship's discovery of a deserted human outpost on a planet many on board the ship want to colonize and, shortly thereafter, its first contact with evidence of intelligent alien life: an apparently derelict spaceship clearly of non-human design. At least five sciencefictional motifs congregate here: (1) first contact, (2) the colonization of space, (3) generation ships, (4) anthropogenic destruction of the Earth, (5) the far future. If we widen our focus from science fiction to fiction, we can then add "science fiction" as a sixth motif with which to look at this novel.

First contact: We have met the alien and... In the popular imagination, aliens fall into three categories: the cuddly Spielbergian new-age visitors of E.T. and Close Encounters (intrinsically friendly); ambiguous beings imbued -- as in X-Files -- with the potential to induce both wonder and terror; physical manifestations of ethnocentric xenophobia and of cultural fear of nature (intrinsically antagonistic). Russo's use of extraterrestrials falls in the latter, a tradition that goes back at least to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, where the Martians may have seemed, superficially, to be monstrous critters bent on world domination, but, really, were simply the British empire writ large -- doing unto the British what the British were doing unto others. The most pervasive depiction of the nasty alien that's out to get us is definitely the eponymous threat first seen in Ridley Scott's Alien. In Ship of Fools, the tense scenes of exploration aboard the alien craft certainly evoke that film, but Scott's alien seemed (ignoring the sequels by other hands), ultimately, to be obeying a biological imperative to survive, whereas Russo's aliens are truly nasty, if somewhat unfathomable (as aliens should be). The alien ship, despite its central place in the plot, remains outside the story itself in some ways. No questions arising from its nature are satisfactorily answered -- but that's all right. The alien ship is an important event, but it's not what the novel is about. It allows the story to unfold and reminds us that answers are not always at hand, or desirable.

The colonization of space: To boldly go where... Human colonization of other planets has been a mainstay of SF since at least the pulp era. Here, Russo, as has been the trend in recent years since "space fiction" made a comeback in the post-cyberpunk era, politicizes the idea to great effect. The class struggles pulsating through the Argonos are fascinating and continue the political dialogue of recent colonization SF such as Resnick's Kirinyaga and Robinson's The Mars Trilogy.

Generation ships: Our mission... Since Robert Heinlein's 1941 story "Universe," the idea of space travel taking so long that untold generations must succeed each other for the mission to reach its ultimate goal has had a strong pull on the sciencefictional imagination. The Argonos is so old that no one remembers just what the ship's mission might be. The politically powerful Christian church has its own ideas about the ship's agenda along with the clout to impose them.

Anthropogenic destruction of the Earth: Some say the world will end in... In recent memory, the Argonos traveled to a planet believed to be the Earth. It was an uninhabitable disaster area. Cautionary novels about humanity's catastrophic human mismanagement of the Earth are almost as old as science fiction itself. One of SF's greatest works, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, is one such. The devastated Earth is not a primary focus of Ship of Fools, but the crew's failure to find a habitable haven on humanity's homeworld provides a tangible urgency to the desire of many among it to find a new planetary home -- and to treasure its rare gifts.

The far future: The future isn't what it used to be... During the cyberpunk years, the far future was temporarily abandoned by SF. Our desire to grasp the new, rapid, violent, postmodern information society made us want science fiction to be set in the present, or at least not to stray too far away from it. Russo, author of the cyberpunk Carlucci series, expands the canvas of his novel writing to include the unknowable far future, a multifaceted epoch previously visited to great effect by writers such as Cordwainer Smith and Gene Wolfe.

Science fiction: There and back again... Although much science fiction is set in the future, it's not about the future. It's about the present. SF doesn't try to predict the future. It shows us the present through the looking-glass of an imagined (often future) reality. Perhaps science fiction deserves its name not because it deals with science and technology (actually much of SF concerns itself only indirectly with these) but because it performs, in a manner both literary and scientific (hence "science" and "fiction"), experiments on humanity. For example, as postmodern readers, we cannot truly believe that Western Christian culture would have stayed so close to its current state in a far-future isolated community like the Argonos -- and Russo must know this. Like a good scientist, Russo isolated his test subject, changed whatever variables were pertinent to his experiment and then let the experiment unfold. And like a good fiction writer, he layered his observations into a captivating and moving narrative without ever spelling anything out. Here, I must share my only quibble with this otherwise fine novel: the ending, once it comes, takes too long to unfold and deteriorates slightly into a mechanical recounting of the "this happened and then that happened" variety. The conclusion of the action takes place far too many pages later than the thematic and emotional climaxes. Still, the getting there was thrilling.

Ship of Fools not only travels through space but through science fiction as well. It's a good voyage. | February 2001


Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.