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Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo
(Ace, $12.95, 370 pages, paperback; January 2001.)

To say that a novel would make a marvellous movie is one thing; to say it is a marvellous novel is another. The two cover scanstatements are usually seen as mutually contradictory.

Not in this case.

The generation starship Argonos has been travelling the spaceways for centuries, its original mission long ago forgotten. Onboard there has developed a microcosmic, stratified, ossified society, one that has come to depend for its survival on its remaining intact and aboard the ship: colonization of discovered terrestrial planets has turned from an aim, if it ever was one, into a taboo. The downsiders (as the lower orders are called), being little more than slaves, are eager to change this status quo; but for obvious reasons have little opportunity to do so in the hopelessly long intervals between the rare discoveries of habitable worlds. In the meantime their overlords, the upsiders, squabble and play the games of politics and coups, even though changes of personnel will and can have little effect on the fortunes of this small floating world.

Bartolomeo Aguilera, born grossly deformed but more physically capable than most men through sophisticated prosthesis, is a sort of troubleshooter and advisor-without-portfolio to the Argonos's captain, Nikos Costa -- although the captain's regime seems nearing its end because of a recent series of disastrous destination choices he has made. Chief rival in the undeclared struggle for ascendancy is Bishop Soldano, semi-charlatan head of the powerful shipboard religion, which mixes Christianity with spacefaring-tinged other elements, including the tenet that the Argonos was never created but has drifted among the stars for all eternity.

Now a new planet is visited, and it is clear that at least in the past it was colonized. Aguilera leads an expedition to the surface to investigate the enigmatic signal being transmitted from one of the ghost population-centres; sent with him as representative of the church is the priest Father Veronica. She and he discover, in the vast basement of the colony's central building, the evidence of a colossal and sadistically barbaric massacre, with even infants having been impaled alive upon metal hooks. The cruelty is all too human, they assume; what they do not find out until a little later is that their discovery has triggered the sending of a fresh signal, its destination a gigantic and seemingly dead alien spaceship beyond the boundaries of this planetary system.

Despite the gruesome evidence, the downsiders wish to disembark and recolonize the world, dubbed Antioch. Believing that Costa's regime is about to die and also that Father Veronica (his initial respect for whom is slowly turning into a near-obsessive love, possibly returned) covertly approves the scheme, Aguilera abets it. But Costa ostentatiously thwarts the rebellion, thereby strengthening his own position in the power struggle.

That beamed signal was detected aboard the Argonos, and so the next port of call is the alien spaceship. It appears to be a long-dead artefact, yet its very alienness renders it lethal to the exploratory teams sent in from the Argonos -- lethal in ways themselves so alien that none can understand properly why various humans are slaughtered or driven mad. A further mystery is that, in all its recorded history, the Argonos has never yet discovered so much as the slightest trace of any other advanced species, yet here is an artefact of a technological sophistication far beyond the human: how could such a spacefaring civilization not have been noticed before?

Aguilera and Father Veronica head a new expedition into the alien vessel and, through trying to accept it rather than force their own humanity upon it, seem to make progress towards unravelling its riddle. They discover the relic of a further massacre of humans -- but, far more dramatically, a human survivor...

The temptation to synopsize beyond this point is almost impossible to resist, especially since so far this might seem to be a fairly orthodox piece of hard sf. Yet to do so would be to give away too much. Way too much.

To say that there are constant surprises in store for the reader would be to mislead. Any competent tale-teller will make sure to have up his or her sleeve an abundance of plot twists with which to startle the reader -- the apparent goodie who proves to be a baddie, and all the rest of the rigmarole. Russo goes far, far beyond such cosmetic mechanics. Not only are we forced to realize that much we have accepted at face value is in fact otherwise, but even the tale itself is otherwise, as is its telling: its motivation is not what you have been lulled into expecting.

Let's jump off that train of thought; to continue it would again be to spoil the book for you.

An important underpinning of this book concerns the nature of religion. Bishop Soldano, with his publicly pretended beliefs and private lack of faith, might seem to be a set-up, stereotyped target for atheistic darts; yet in fact his belief system proves to be far more complex than his self-prepared veneer would suggest. Much more interesting, though, is Father Veronica, whose faith, however misguided one might believe it to be (and the word "believe" is here double-edged), is not just sincere but properly coherent. It is entirely understandable that Aguilera should fall so much in love with her; the fact that she is a woman of some physical attractiveness is almost irrelevant beside her quality of mind and her humanity.

(This entire strand of the novel is superbly handled; as Aguilera falls in love with Father Veronica he sees her with progressively greater clarity. Initially all he sees is the packaging: she is a "striking woman" rather than any great beauty. Later she is fairer by far than the stars and all under them; his initially vaguely carnal inclinations intensify and then become almost unimportant to his love. I cannot easily recall having seen, in any form of fiction, this process of tumbling into love so accurately and honestly depicted.)

Contrasted against Veronica's faith is Aguilera's atheism; with a sweetness of thought, the two worldviews are found not incompatible: Veronica's belief system may not be valid, because its axioms are not valid, yet it has full validity as a model of reality. This causes us to think -- as it certainly causes Aguilera to think -- about the status of his own atheism: does it reflect the truth, or is it merely another model? His own axioms are being shredded by the presence and nature of the alien starship; he clings to them, regardless, despite realizing that perhaps they are as faith-bound as Father Veronica's.

Also of great interest is the writing style. To generalize, the mode of writing used in the modern "literary" novel is one that seems designed to distance the reader from any direct involvement, as if storytelling (an art shameful, because millennia-old) were the antithesis of fiction. Russo nonetheless deploys this mode; his doing so should clash wildly with the parameters -- with the raison d'être -- of storytelling in general and of hard sf in particular, yet it works superbly well. Aguilera and the rest work, as characters, even better because you have to grope to reach them; the action sequences work at least doubly well because so understated.

At one level, this is the best piece of hard sf I have read for a long time. But the book is much more than that: it has subtexts below subtexts below subtexts. It's the kind of book that people pin you to the bar about at parties; it's the kind of book that academics will argue over; it's the kind of book you'll start off reading with the expectation of the Sense of Wonder and discover you never before fully understood what the expression "Sense of Wonder" actually meant; it's the kind of book that would make a marvellous movie but a movie after the watching of which the cognoscenti would say: "You thought that was good? Wait'll you read the novel..."

Oh, go and read this book. It'll save me having to explain any further why you should.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 19 May 2001