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Ship of Fools
Richard Paul Russo
Ace Books, 370 pages

Ship of Fools
Richard Paul Russo
Richard Paul Russo has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award for Subterranean Gallery, a Philip K. Dick Special Award for Carlucci's Edge, and has been shortlisted for England's Arthur C. Clarke Award for his novel Destroying AngelsTerminal Visions is his first collection of short stories.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Terminal Visions
Review of Destroying Angels
Review of Destroying Angels in German
Review of Subterranean Gallery
Review of Carlucci's Heart

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

A few notable exceptions notwithstanding, movies have been a major cause of SF's reputation as a lower art form, beginning with the cheesy "B" flicks of the 50s that typically featured atomic enhanced lizards or aliens with big foreheads. Special effects have come a long way since then, but I'd argue it's precisely because of these highly sophisticated technical capabilities that contemporary celluloid-based SF continues to largely miss the point. For the most part, today's SF flicks revel in their ability to realistically render alien skins in the finest detail, and because that's what the general public seems to want to see, hardly any matching effort goes into imaginative story lines, which are more likely to be dictated by marketing department rote.

Which serves only to trivialize the experience of the alien. By alien, I don't mean the riffs on "Little Green Men from Outer Space" that populate Star Trek episodes. Rather, I'm referring to the "alien who is us" that has been the subject of serious science fiction dating back to at least John W. Campbell Jr.'s "Who Goes There?" One difference, then, between literary SF and the type of simplistic SF entertainment embraced by the major media is the depiction of the alien. While the latter revels in its ability to show the alien, the more artistic purveyors of the form know that the true alien is subversively elusive, beyond our full comprehension even as we are sucked into the whirlpool.

Case in point is Richard Paul Russo's Ship of Fools. An alien presence threatens the crew of the Argonos, a deep space ship wandering the galaxy for countless generations, as equally uncertain of its original mission as to how to define one of its own. This lack of purpose is further complicated by a power struggle between the alcoholic ship's captain Nikos and Bishop Soldano. As the head of a Church preaching a theology in which the ship "always was and always will be," Soldano guards a secret that leads to different conclusions. This may help explain why Soldano has lost his faith in God, but not in the existence of Evil.

As Nikos and Soldano parry for power, a larger struggle is intensified by the discovery of a signal from a planet that is capable of supporting human life. The ship's underclass -- workers who perform the daily drudgery to keep the ship operational, literally relegated to the ship's lower living levels -- plans a mutiny to escape the ship for the new world. Straddling both the class conflict and the political struggle of the ruling elite is the misfit Bartolemo, the tale's narrator. Physically deformed from birth, Bartolemo is in various ways estranged from the contending factions, but his position as trusted advisor to Nikos makes him a key figure to win over.

The novel's title is a literary reference to the Narrenschiff, a fable of a journey of misfits rounded up by the burghers of Basle and shipped off down the Rhine, published in 1494. Similar works inspired by this tale, including director Stanley Kramer's 1962 movie adaptation of the Katherine Anne Porter novel set on an ocean liner, follow the conceit of using a ship's self-contained population isolated from the larger world to portray the foibles particular to social class strata.

Russo's brush here isn't quite as broad, and while it touches on political intrigues and class distinctions, the focus is on the spiritual development and survival of the narrator, whose psyche has suffered contortions akin to that of his body. Despite a few flaws (some minor, but important characters, are less than fully developed and a theological discussion that is little more sophisticated than a college dorm BS session), this is a highly compelling narrative that considers not the existence of God, but the more apparent presence of Evil and how human decisions, even correctly made decisions, serve its ends.

Russo knows that to explore the depths of the alien means never being able to fully explain it. Like Bartolemo, we can only know it by its results. And strive to get out of its way, even as it ensnares those we care for.

If someone ever tries to turn this into a movie (and I think it actually has screenplay possibilities), let's hope there's a limited special effects budget and that the effort goes into telling a timeless story of the human predicament. A story we never fully comprehend, or resolve, but must face up to.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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