Richard Paul Russo,
Ship of Fools
(Ace, 2002)

The ship of the title is a starship that has wandered the galaxy for generations, seeking in vain a planet suitable for habitation. Society aboard has stratified along the fairly predictable lines of a social elite keeping the larger part of the population in enforced drudgery. The tool of suppression is exclusive knowledge of the ship's workings, a knowledge that amounts to the power of life and death. But despite this social arrangement, and despite the history of the ship and its origin being lost to the inhabitants, civilization has by no means regressed to barbarity.

The novel takes the form of an epistolary personal history. The writer, Bartolomeo Aguilera, is our only guide to this world, the world of Argonos, and consequently we see, hear and know only what he wants us to. However, occupying as he does an uneasy position between the two rival power brokers on the ship, the Captain and the Bishop of the (orthodox Christian) Church, Bartolomeo soon convinces us of his credentials as an honest observer. Ever unflinching in his self-criticism, he observes those around him with a gentle understanding eye.

Not surprisingly rebellion constantly smolders among the lower (literally within the ship's structure) classes. Within Argonos also is a cathedral whose enormous steel-glass window (depicting the crucified Christ) is incorporated into the external hull of the ship. The Bishop's power rests on the presence of this unambiguous symbol of the unknown builders' beliefs. The discovery of a new, possibly habitable planet (Antioch) is the wind that fans to flame both the discontent of the ship's lower inhabitants and the rivalry between the Captain and Bishop.

Into this mix is added the sudden presence of an alien ship of gigantic proportions, apparently derelict. Potentially the first ever contact of humans with aliens, Bartolomeo is quick to appreciate the enormous opportunities it offers. He is prepared to enter into a Faustian bargain -- the untold knowledge that the alien ship contains against the cost of an encounter with what in human terms could be described as evil.

Embodying the counterpoint to this evil is the priest Father Veronica who is moved to discussions of the "God-and-the-existence-of-evil" paradox by what both she and Bartolomeo (and the reader) discovered during the initial survey of Antioch. Bartolomeo, though never a believer, is also shaken by that experience.

The advantage of setting a story aboard a generation starship is that the ship can easily be made to represent humanity in a microcosm. And so it is here with evidence aplenty of betrayal of principals and friendships, as well as the godless hypocritical manipulation of the faithful, for the sake of political power. At some stage in its journeying the ship we are told returned to Earth to find it barren and abandoned as a result of human folly. Father Veronica therefore is not naive in regard to the evil that may lie in the human heart, and she has no illusions about the Bishop's sanctity. Yet some quality of quintessential evil perceived on Antioch prompts her to exercise her religious and philosophical energies. Sadly, anyone familiar with the history of 20th century Earth (the Holocaust or Cambodia's Pol Pot, to name just two of many) would not be shaken to the core by a visit to Antioch as Father Veronica and Bartolomeo were.

As a consequence the philosophical discussions between Bartolomeo and Veronica have a curiously old-fashioned feel to them, ignoring as they do all modern insights in cosmology and evolutionary biology to pose directly the one fundamental question of whether or not a personal loving God in the Judeo-Christian tradition exists. From time immemorial the absence of empirical data makes such a quest totally reliant on personal insight, and so here also. Any insights however are dictated by Veronica and Bartolomeo's life experience in the only world they have ever known, Argonos. As events within this world unfold we see that Richard Paul Russo has contrived an experiment, one in which Argonos and her occupants are as a test tube filled with reactive elements. It is not taking this analogy too far to say that Bartolomeo is in many ways the catalysts among these elements, facilitating events but remaining unchanged -- the perfect chronicler.

I do not wish to overstate this novel's emphasis on ideas, especially since they are so successfully woven into a narrative that steadily builds to a page-turning confrontation at its end. By virtue of these concluding events, Bartolomeo's record forms a testament to those supremely good qualities of the human heart, from wherever they may be derived.

- Rambles
written by Conor O'Connor
published 18 January 2003

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