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Ship of Fools

Richard Paul Russo

Ace / Penguin Putnam

US Mass Market Paperback

ISBN 0-441-00893-3

Publication Date: 01-15-2002

370 Pages; $6.99

Date Reviewed: 08-20-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Science Fiction, Horror

In a science fiction novel, the environment created by the author can overpower or empower the narrative. Richard Paul Russo's fine novel 'Ship of Fools' is an excellent example of the latter. The generation starship Argonos is an essential player in the story of Bartolomeo, Captain Nikos and the crew of this lost, ailing vessel. Russo's creation is so confident that the story which evolves within it becomes more powerful and more complex as a result. Russo is able to tackle the big questions, flesh out his characters into living breathing beings and provide a high-voltage plot. He writes careful, claustrophobic prose, then spins about to present a rotting galactic vista. He harkens back to the classics of science fiction literature and cinema while creating a new addition to canon. 'Ship of Fools' is for nearly all tastes an excellent science fiction novel.

Russo signals his ambitious intentions in the opening of the novel. "We had not made landfall for fourteen years. One disastrous choice of a star after another. The captain viewed this string of failures as absurdly bad luck; the bishop as divine intervention." Bartolomeo is the assistant to Captain Nikos; the downfall of the Captain will bring about Bartolomeo's downfall as well. The crew is stratified into a literal upstairs-downstairs conflict. The Bishop is a corrupt power figure, the captain an inept power figure. When the ship receives a signal from a nearby planet, the hopes of the crew are raised. Perhaps here they can find their destination, their destiny. They certainly find the latter; the former is ever elusive.

Russo's gritty prose and wonderfully conceived starship enable the reader to become completely immersed in lives of those aboard the Argonos. Upon the planet, they find the remains of a former colony. It's not a pretty sight. And deep within, they trigger another signal, pointing elsewhere, further into the unknown. Russo's prep work pays off handsomely as he follows his characters into the chaos of the unknown universe. His descriptions are so good, you can practically run your hands across the rust-riddled surfaces of the rotting spaceship. His characters are so compelling, you can feel their anxiety ratcheting up as one unpleasantness after another reveals itself.

Most importantly, all of this allows Russo to deal in the kind of symbolic shadowplay that shows up the strengths of the science fiction genre. The chaos of the universe is not just a philosophical concept for the crew of the Argonos; it's a daily experience that the reader can share. Russo effectively creates a surface text where subtexts can bloom into lush, harsh life. He uses the tools of science fiction -- the generation starship that is so large that its inhabitants must explore the interior of the human creation as a new terrain, the experience of the truly alien -- to get at the truths of the lives of characters in a way that is particularly affecting.

Of course, all this would be for naught if Russo didn't also write a gripping narrative, filled with tension and surprises. Suffice it to say that if the reader is looking for the creepy strangeness and shocking terror of the experience you first had when you saw the movie 'Alien' 20 years ago, then 'Ship of Fools' is surely your best hope for doing so. Russo captures the Lovecraftian feel of an inimical, hostile universe aimed at tiny, frail human beings. He manages to blindside the reader with clever plot and character twists. A particularly effective character is Bartolomeo's trickster-like friend, the dwarf Par. The imagery of this character and Bartolomeo clambering through the refuse of the Argonos is striking and memorable, like a dream sequence from a David Lynch film. Chances are the reader will dream of the Argonos as well. Don't expect a solid night of sleep.