Ace Books, 2001, 370 pages
Home to generations of humans, the starship Argonos has wandered aimlessly throughout the galaxy for hundreds of years, desperately searching for other signs of life. Now a steady, unidentified transmission lures them toward a nearby planet, where the grisly remains of a former colony await the crew. Haunted by what they have seen, the crew has no choice but to follow when another signal beckons the Argonos into deep space — and into the dark heart of an alien mystery.
Ship of Fools is a Big Dumb Object crossed with a haunted house, and you can just picture it on the big screen, with an audience hanging on the edge of their seats when things go from creepy to scary to HOLY FUCKING SHIT! at the end.
The Argonos is a generation ship, run by an Executive Council with nominal authority over the Captain. The first part of the book is largely political machinations: we learn that the Argonos has lost its original mission, or any connection with human civilization elsewhere in the galaxy. They occasionally find human-inhabited colonies, but infrequently and there is no substantial trade or diplomacy. Instead, they've become an insular, closed community, several thousand people divided into "downsiders," who are virtually serfs, and the ship's officers and crew, who spend most of their time playing petty political games.
The main character and first-person narrator is Bartolomeo, an orphan born with stunted limbs and a misshapen spine, which he compensates for with an exoskeleton and prosthetic limbs. Nikos, a childhood friend of Bartolomeo, is now the Captain of the Argonos. Bartolomeo's gratitude toward the man who befriended him when no one else would and whose friendship now gives him a great deal of privilege he otherwise wouldn't have, is sorely tested when a group of downsiders try to enlist his help in a covert insurrection.
The Captain's chief rival is Bishop Soldano, the leader of the ship's Church (never explicitly named, but clearly a futuristic Catholic sect). Although Soldano is an antagonist, the Church is not the villain here: one of the secondary characters who becomes Bartolomeo's close friend (and the object of his unrequited love) is Father Veronica, who brings a somewhat philosophical spin to the book, though really her conversations with Bartolomeo are pretty rote discussions of free will, the Problem of Evil, and so on.
All this background serves to set up the interpersonal and societal conflicts after the Argonos reaches a world called Antioch, and finds the remains of a human colony. The colonists were slaughtered, in a horrific, nightmarish way. But when the Argonos leaves the planet, they pick up a signal from the erstwhile colony beamed at another point in deep space.
Well, how can they not investigate? Of course it turns out that they really, really shouldn't have.
They find an alien ship — the first encounter with aliens ever recorded — seemingly empty and abandoned. The scenes where Bartolomeo and his boarding crew explore the ship are all the scarier because there aren't any monsters.
The ship is creepy and scary and even the most innocuous discoveries are just wrong in all kinds of ways, and you know the whole time (as Bartolomeo does too on some level) that this is Not Going To End Well.
This is a book to which I find comparisons to movies come more readily than comparisons to other books, and that's not a bad thing. Think Alien, Event Horizon, or Lifeforce. (Okay, maybe not Lifeforce — that film was kind of crap.) But you will also find this kind of grimdark pessimistic sci-fi in another little-read favorite of mine, A Grey Moon Over China.
Have you read Ship of Fools?
Verdict: I sometimes make fun of books that seem to be Hollywood-bait — "Please, please Ridley Scott, option me!" — but dayyum, Ship of Fools would make an awesome, pants-shittingly scary movie. This is the manuscript that Prometheus should have been.
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