By Matthew E. Milliken
March 29, 2015
The narrator of Ship of Fools, Richard Paul Russo’s 2001 science fiction novel, is a cynical man. And who can blame him? Bartolomeo Aguilera has never known his parents; they abandoned him, he presumes, because of his physical deformities, which have made him a pariah throughout his life.
Aguilera is a voyager aboard Argonos, an ancient starship that roams the galaxy. The immense vessel’s age, origin and mission are all mysterious. The on-board bishop, an ambitious man, “claimed that the ship had always existed — a ‘Mystery’ that was usually a large part of his conversion sermons, a large part of his basic theology. A large part of his nonsense.”
If Bishop Bernard Soldano’s outlook hints at medieval beliefs, that’s no accident. Argonos has developed a rigid caste system: The wealthy, entitled First Echelon live on the luxurious upper decks while impoverished serfs labor to maintain the vessel on the dingy lower levels. Moreover, the captaincy is handed down along dynastic lines: “Though technically an elected position, in practice the captaincy was inherited, and had resided within the Costa-Malvini clan for several generations.”