Ship of Fools (vt Unto Leviathan) – Richard Paul Russo (2001)
‘For Hundreds of years the Argonos, home to generations of humans, has trawled the galaxy searching for other signs of life. Now, a steady unidentified transmission has lured the ship to a remote planet.
On the surface the crew find evidence of a colony – but no inhabitants. Until they discover a trail deep into the planet’s steamy jungles, and their terrifying fate is revealed to them.
But this is only the first message.’
Blurb from the 2003 Orbit paperback edition
This is the novel that the movie ‘Event Horizon’ should have been, set in a surreal dystopian Universe which is huge, hostile and not a little scary.
The Argonos has been cruising space for untold generations, ostensibly on a mission to reacquaint lost human colonies (and new alien civilisations) with Christianity (forcibly if necessary). The ship has a cathedral, complete with stained glass windows set into the hull, the details of which can only be seen when one goes outside the ship in a suit.
Rigid class structures have evolved and society is divided between the privileged and the downsiders who exist and work in the bowels of the ship.
Bartolomeo – the central figure – is adviser and childhood friend of the current Captain, Nikos. Bartolomeo was born with malformed limbs; in particular severely stunted arms and a club foot. He exists inside an exoskeletal suit and an important aspect of the novel, if not the most important aspect of the novel, is his relationships with a variety of other characters.
The Argonos discovers a life-bearing planet which Bishop Soldano – (political rival of Nikos and Bartolomeo) christens Antioch; a planet from which a signal is being broadcast.
Bartolomeo and his landing team however, discover nothing but evidence of mass murder and torture. Despite this, Bartolomeo is encouraged by his dwarf friend Par, to become involved in a scheme to organise a mass exodus of the disaffected who wish to leave the ship and settle on Antioch.
The conspiracy is discovered and prevented, after which Bartolomeo is incarcerated for months
The Captain is then forced to release him when a vast alien ship is discovered seemingly abandoned in the Antioch system. The ship appears to be empty, but is filled with elaborate traps for the unwary.
A woman is discovered on board – seemingly borderline insane – and is brought back to the Argonos, following which Bartolomeo discovers her to be not human. By this time the Argonos has docked with the alien ship, intending to tow it to a civilised world and have it studied.
The ship refuses to be unclamped and most of the occupants of the Argonos escape to Antioch while Captain Nikos drags the alien ship on a suicide jump into hyperspace.
One of the interesting stylistic points of this novel is that many questions are left unanswered. The aliens are truly enigmatic and are made all the more frightening by the fact that we never get to meet them, only getting a glimpse of them from Sarah, the woman found aboard the alien ship.
When ‘Sarah’ is discovered in a sealed compartment she has the initials S.C. tattooed on her arm and a photograph is found of a younger and older woman, both of whom resemble Sarah, but whether the original Sarah (if there ever was one) is the mother or daughter we never discover.
Many of Bartolomeo’s questions are never answered either, since he seems to be a man on a quest for Truth, Love, Answers and Friendship, many of which are in short supply. The one woman he is in love with – Father Veronica – is a Catholic Priest, and she is killed because of his opposition to the plans of Bishop Soldano.
His parents abandoned him as a child and so he has no family to form close relationships with. His relationships with Nikos and Par are also suspect in his own mind since they are inevitably entwined with the political machinations of both.
Bartolomeo is also a man who makes mistakes, a refreshing change for a genre hero. His decision to help Par with the mutiny ends disastrously, and later, he has to admit that Bishop Soldano, the man responsible for Father Veronica’s death, was right about the ship; the Bishop having maintained that the ship was evil and should be left alone.
Nevertheless, this makes for a fascinating characterisation, and one cannot help but like Bartolomeo and put oneself in his place in the decisions he has to make.
One might argue that Bartolomeo is being tested, as the hapless explorers of the alien ship are being tested.
Comparisons have to be made with Alastair Reynolds (in the industrial gothic elements) and Stanislaw Lem (particularly with regard to Solaris, since the vast ship is so Lem-like in its sheer unknowable alien-ness) and David Lynch (simply because of the sheer weirdness and the unanswered questions) but the style is a very individual one. Not many authors would be so brave as to throw in so many mysteries which are never solved: What was the Bishop doing at the start of the novel, supervising a gang of men who were linking two pieces of vast machinery?
What is the significance of the wooden box found in the alien ship? Why is a Cathedral at the heart of the ship and why can one only see its stained glass designs from space?
However, these sideline mysteries add a refreshing touch of verisimilitude to a novel which is a very worthy winner of the Philip K Dick Award.
This is ‘Alien’ for the David Lynch Generation. Russo is forcing us to look for explanations where there are none, just like Bartolomeo and the explorers of the alien ship; perhaps like the Bishop and the Captain who has no answer as to why his wife chooses to abandon him to his fate.
It is a book which will hide out in your mind for years to come.