A cynic probes alien mysteries in Richard Paul Russo’s ‘Ship of Fools’

March 29, 2015

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.”

But Captain Nikos Costa’s power — and with it, Aguilera’s prestigious position as the captain’s advisor and confidant — is now threatened. Morale aboard Argonos is low. The ship’s last landfall, 14 years ago, was a disaster, largely because Soldano attempted to convert the population against its will. Since then, the ship has visited four star systems. Of those, three lacked habitable planets and showed no sign of previous human visitation; the fourth had no planets at all.

Only a few planets have been colonized by humans; their locations, alas, were purged from the vessel’s memory banks nearly three centuries ago when a deadly shipboard plague prompted a chaotic rebellion. Argonos visited Earth some generations ago but found only lifeless, irradiated ruins. No evidence of alien intelligence has ever been found.

But the situation aboard Argonos is about to change — radically. While approaching a new system, the ship detects a steady, unvarying radio transmission being broadcast from one of the planets. Costa and Aguilera sense opportunity, as do Soldano and other rivals.

But the planet harbors only a few abandoned settlements. In one of these places, Aguilera finds a horrific tomb; it contains hundreds upon hundreds of mutilated skeletons hanging from hooks and impaled on spikes.

Months later, Argonos comes across a derelict alien vessel. After one person exploring the ship dies, and another becomes catatonic, Aguilera is assigned to lead a slow, methodic search of the discovery.

Ghostly blue light and a black surface that seemed to draw in that light and swallow it: that was the alien ship from two, three kilometers away as we slowly approached. Already the ship was blotting out much of our field of vision, cutting off the stars like a rent in the universe.

Nikos was right. The alien vessel was enormous, and it seemed we were being deliberately sucked into it. I also felt a hint of what Father George and Father Veronica had suggested — the sense of some malign quality to the ship, though it appeared dead and harmless.

I was in the front cabin with the pilot, watching the alien starship grow and spread all around us, appearing to extinguish the stars in all directions until there was nothing to be seen but the black mass coming at us. I felt lost in all that darkness, and I had the strong urge to retreat from the pilot’s cabin, find a window looking back at the stars. For a moment I had to close my eyes, overwhelmed.

“Jesus,” I whispered, opening my eyes once again to that dark immensity.

“Don’t take His name in vain,” the pilot said to me.

I turned to her, but there was no indication that she’d been joking. “Sorry,” I said. She shrugged, not looking at me, keeping her gaze on the ship ahead of us and the instrument panels. I wondered how many of his own “agents” the bishop had managed to include on this expedition.

As the crew of the Argonos struggle to learn the secrets of the dead alien behemoth, they’re driven apart by internal tensions and imperiled by external threats. Russo cranks up the action in the last 80 or so pages as Costa, Aguilera and others work to preserve their ship.

Unfortunately, many of the earlier chapters are slow going. None of the characters are all that interesting; nor is the political bickering that seems to preoccupy the captain, his aide and the bishop. One of the characters, the saintly Father Veronica — a true believer, unlike the venal Soldano — offers an interesting theory about divinity and free will, but her insights, and her character, often seemed to feel like they belonged in another book.

I enjoy science fiction with a tinge of horror — for example, the Alien movies and the critically panned 1997 film Event Horizon — but I haven’t read much in this subgenre. To people interested in this particular specialty, I can offer only a lukewarm recommendation for Ship of Fools. To others, I’d suggest picking another volume.

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