David's Reviews > Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo
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Dec 17, 13

bookshelves: science-fiction, horror
Read in January, 2007

The book cover hooked my eye. I didn't know that the author, Richard Paul Russo, had won the Philip K. Dick Award for this work, his second. I'd never even heard of him. I was looking for someone new to try so I read the back cover.

No one remembers where they came from or where they're going. For hundreds of years, the starship Argonos, home to generations of humans, has wandered throughout the galaxy, searching for other signs of life. Now, a steady, unidentified transmission lures them toward a nearby planet.

The colony has vanished. But deep within the planet's steamy jungles, the exploration team finds horrible evidence of its fate.

Once more, a signal lures the crew of the Argonos. Haunted by what they have seen, they have no choice but to follow - deep into space, where an alien mystery awaits...


"Interesting," I thought. So I bought it. But the book really wasn't about all that. Oh sure, it's the story, but it's not what the book is about. Despite the fact that the book won the Philip K Dick Award in 2001, it turned some people off, including this guy. While I don't agree with his conclusions, he makes several good points that I won't refute. He's right about the story but not what the book is about. What the book really is about, IMO, is our beliefs.

The story is told from the viewpoint of one man: Bartolomeo Aguilera. He was born with several physical deformities: stunted arms, a damaged spine and a club foot. He makes up for it through the use of prosthetics and a metallic exoskeleton. He's a negative atheist who's intrigued by Father Veronica (yes, a woman priest), her faith in particular.

"I understand hypocrites, like the bishop, and I understand fanatics, or at least I can more easily predict their behavior, which is much the same thing, as far as I am concerned. But I admit I did not know what to make of true believers like Father Veronica. Her belief, her faith, was both profound and real. Her faith disturbed me."


Bartolomeo and Veronica are among the team sent down to the mysterious planet to investigate the source of the signal and the fate of the colony there. The two spend time together and slowly, over the course of the story, Father Veronica reveals a bit more of her faith to him. He also finds himself falling in love with her. In fact, since Bart isn't a member of the crew (he's the captain's adviser , a political position), he's free to dwell on these things while everyone else is engaged in their work.

So how did Bart find himself in this crisis of belief systems? His aforementioned deformities resulted in his being abandoned at birth. He was raised by the upper class community of which his parents, though he doesn't know who they are, are a part of. No compassionate conservatives here. He spent his whole life trying to find his own path. His deformities kept him isolated from the others and he had few friends (the captain being one). His predicament is just like the Argonos, the generational starship that he lives on.

Over a century ago, there was a strange plague that drove a large percentage of the ship's population mad. In the ensuing chaos, there was a lot of internal damage. Among the casualties were the historical records and navigational database. The ship has been lost since then and has no way of finding the other worlds that humans have colonized. They stumble upon habitable planets by accident. A star is chosen and they journey towards it but it's been 14 years since their last contact. An ill-fated attempt by the bishop to play missionary to the masses of that world forced the Argonos to leave. So the ship keeps wandering around, lost, with no idea as to what its mission is or even its destination. Bart is merely the embodiment of that rudderlessness.

Bart learns that Father Veronica doesn't blindly follow her faith, nor is she the preaching type. She doesn't patronize, condescend or condemn. She questions her faith regularly and periodically steals herself away for introspection. I won't reveal Father Veronica's confession to Bart and spoil it for would be readers. Let's just say I found it to be intriguing. I'm sure that there are plenty people of faith who will disagree with what Russo has her say. And he certainly won't convince atheists to pick up a Bible. But it might give some people something to think about.

There's no point discussing many of the "real" plot elements. Russo leaves so many unanswered why's and how's that I can't see why I should bother. It's the faux story, which pissed some people off. The real story is Bart's quest for purpose, meaning, and belief. If the back cover was the real story, we would've been offered other viewpoints in the book. All of the major characters actions are revealed to us only through Bart's interaction with them. Reading Ship of Fools for the mystery teaser on the back cover is Russo's deceit to get readers to explore even deeper mysteries.
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