Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: "Ship of Fools/Unto Leviathan" by Richard Paul Russo

The Argonos has been lost in space for so long that its intended destination, like its port of origin, has been forgotten. The beacon from the planet Antioch is the first hint of civilization it has encountered in decades. But when Bartolomeo and the exploration team land planetside, they find only corpses.

Despite Antioch's disturbing mysteries, the underclasses enslaved by the Argonos view it as a chance at freedom. Their desperate attempt to escape the ship ends in catastrophe. Bartolomeo, caught in a political struggle between the ship's captain and its bishop, is cast as the leader of the mutiny and thrown in the brig.

While the imprisoned Bartolomeo questions his place on a ship that despises him, the Argonos returns to its solitary voyaging. For the first time in memory, though, it has a direction. Clues on Antioch lead them into the black of space--where a vast structure, not built by human hands, waits to be found.

  3 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
Rating Ship of Fools was trickier than I anticipated.

When I drafted this review, it had been some months since I actually read the book. I was pretty comfortable giving it a scathing 1.5 stars for what I remembered. To be fair-- and to find my quotes--I reread it. And I enjoyed it far more than I had the first time around.

(Here's your one and only warning: nonspecific spoilers are scattered throughout the rest of this review.)

My first readthrough of the book left me with a great distaste for it. The ending of the story is frankly terrible. Instead of packing a punch, it does a pratfall. The author, Richard Paul Russo, succeeds in building suspense; he fails in delivering the promised existential horror. It's like he can't imagine anything actually scary, so he raids the bargain-movie-monster bin. After spending 350 pages wrestling with the question of ultimate evil, he commits the unforgivable sin: falling back on the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Because of the terrible conclusion, I remembered the whole of the book as being terrible. Upon a second readthrough--knowing ahead of time that it ends like a damp firework, with a sad fizzle and a faint stink--I've conclude that the journey of Ship of Fools is good.
"Your choices, your decisions, were not necessarily the wrong choices. Sometimes they were the right choices, the moral choices. They just didn't work out."
Dear reader, if you're suffocating on grizzled space marines, you will find Russo's narrator to be a breath of fresh air. Bartolomeo Aguilera, the captain's advisor, is severely disfigured and dependent upon a mechanical exoskeleton. He is at odds with the entire ship's population, excluded by the upper class and mistrusted by the lower. Watching him weigh how much he owes to a society that has rejected him is one of the better points of the book.

(I'll take a second to thank Russo for depicting a diverse population on a ship with Earth origins, which is where the last sci-fi book I reviewed dropped the ball. While the restrictive environment (and limited narrative description) flattens potential cultural expression, the names of the crew of the Argonos convey their varied Earth origins: Bartolomeo Aguilera. Nikos Costa. Pär Lundkvist. Andrew Thornton. Sari Mandapat. Michel Tournier. Rocco Costino. Margita Cardenas. Nazia Abouti. I find so few genre writers who agree that our future will be--as our past has been--populated by more people than white Americans of Northern European descent.)
"Free will," she said. "That's what I finally understood. True free will." 

She looked away from me, although not toward the stained glass. It was as if she was staring into the depths of the space, into the depths of time.
"When God created human beings, He bestowed upon us the greatest gift besides His love.
Out of His love. Two gifts, really, but so interconnected they are like one. First, the capacity to do anything, good or evil, wise or unwise, loving or hateful. And second, true free will to act upon that capacity.

"Those are God-like qualities. Not in power, but in choice. If He had created us in such a way that we could only do good, if we were incapable of acting badly, selfishly, causing pain or harm, then the notion of free will would be meaningless, would it not? Not only that, true free will precludes God's intervention in our lives. There is no real free will if God intercedes to protect us or save us from the consequences of our own or other people's actions and choices. We have to face those consequences ourselves. That is the price we pay for free will."

Father Veronica sighed heavily, and when she resumed there was an ache in her voice. "Can you imagine the sacrifice God has made to provide us with this gift? He knows we will not always make good choices. He knows we will cause ourselves and others terrible pain and grief. Can you imagine His own pain and grief, knowing that He
could intercede, could change our lives and ease our suffering, but knowing also that to do so would be to take back the wonderful gift He has bestowed?

"For we can also love and comfort one another, we can choose good over evil, we can relish and appreciate life, we can revel in all the small, wonderful pleasures of being alive, we can love and be loved, and those things are all the greater because they are freely chosen. Because we are not puppets."

I had listened and reflected all this time without interrupting, and I finally questioned her. "Does God know everything that will happen?"

"No. He knows everything that is happening now, as time flows, He knows everything that has happened in the past, and He can make very accurate assessments, I am certain, of what any of us will choose to do. But, once again, our free will would not be true free will if He knew absolutely what every choice would be. When He created us, and gave us free will, He effectively cancelled our His foreknowledge of the future."

[...] "And what about Him?" I asked, gesturing at the crucified figure glowing in the side of the ship, that terrible and beautiful vision of light and life, and a death that held the promise of new life. Or so the Church claimed. "Why?"

"God's own guilt," she said, but so quietly I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly.

I could hear her take a long, deep breath, then slowly release it. "He created us. He gave us true free will. Therefore He is in some real way ultimately responsible for the suffering we inflict upon one another. He has his own guilt. And sacrificing His Son, Himself, was a way to help expiate that guilt."
I really liked that section. I found it to be an unusual and meaningful interpretation of Christian doctrine. (You are not obligated to agree, dear reader.) Rediscovering that bit of philosophy alone was worth the great disappointment of the book's conclusion.

While it masquerades as a high-minded spiritual metaphor, though--and fails to pull off horror-- Ship of Fools is really just a sci-fi yarn. It touches on three sub-genres at the same time, but they mesh together well. As I saw it described in another review, "it's a First Contact story, a deep space opera story, and a derelict ship story." I have seen all three handled better elsewhere, even if I am glad I [re]read it.

Be warned: this is the same mediocre
book, repackaged to attract new fools.
Certain moments retained a power to compel or disturb, even after I put the book down. The scene when Bartolomeo followed Father Veronica and saw, from space, the great stained-glass "window" of the ship's cathedral is really very lovely. The various "accidents" that befall the explorers of the alien ship are sufficiently disturbing in their lack of reason. Careful readers might see when the truth about Antioch slips out, and can pat themselves on the back for figuring it out before the characters.

Inevitably, though, the book suffers the engine failure of so many horror stories--the final revelation lacks the promised spook factor. Once "unimaginable evil" is given a shape, it tends to lose its power to frighten. Whatever the reader has been half-imagining is worse than whatever the author describes. The form of Russo's nightmares is not the form of my own.

In the end, I can't justify giving this book more than a medium rating when its conclusion is such a cataclysmic letdown. Russo's prose is adequate but lackluster; his characters are fairly well-developed but not likely to linger with the reader; the best part of the spiritual and existential discussion throughout the book is quoted above. I won't say it's a waste of time, but, dear reader, you must read it with an expectation of disappointment. So take that as you will.

Ship of Fools was recently republished as Unto Leviathan, so if you see it by that name, you'll know to pick it up--or not.

(For a horror story which actually makes good on its premise, I direct readers back to Stephen King's Duma Key.)

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