Adventures in Reading: Richard Paul Russo’s SHIP OF FOOLS

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I really enjoy a good science fiction story.  The science fiction genre is unique in that it can serve up social, religious, or political commentary in a way that is a little less on the nose than some novels that use a more contemporary setting. The unfamiliar settings help to give us a certain amount of distance, and allow us to be more subjective when it comes to the themes of the piece. Although the stories may have somewhat fantastical settings and strange worlds, they usually have one thing in common. What all stories have in common, really. They’re about people, or at the very least, something that is relate-able to people. Good sci-fi, in my opinion, isn’t really about it’s fantastical back drop. Sure, that stuff is cool and all, but more importantly, it’s about those that inhabit it’s universe. The modern Battlestar Galactica I think is a good example of what I’m talking about. Hell, even the Original Trilogy (You know what I’m talking about…. Hopefully.) is what makes those flicks so special, and most importantly, relate-able. A well built universe is “cool”, and that’s all it will ever be(I’m looking at you ‘Avatar’), if we don’t have characters we care about. That we can empathize with. That we can commiserate with. That we can connect with. If ‘Ship of Fools gets one thing right it’s the characters. That’s not to say that the universe it builds isn’t interesting. No, not at all, but the characters and their struggles are at the heart of this novel. Unfortunately, that’s kind of where the buck stops.

One of the bigger themes in ‘Ship of Fools‘ is that of faith, and the nature of faith. What is belief? Does one actually have to believe in God, or is just the notion and what God represents enough? How do we guide ourselves through this life? How do we do what is right? The characters all struggle with these questions, to one degree or another. The novel is a ponderous, and somewhat meandering one. The actual plot is almost secondary to the ideas. Which is fine. I find these type of “esoteric” questions to be interesting, and are something I think about a great deal. It doesn’t offer any real clear cut answers when it comes to these things, and I think, on that level, it’s entirely appropriate. Everybody has a different view on these things, and the characters all seem to represent different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view on the nature of “belief”, and that’s not unlike what we run into everyday. Consensus is a hard thing to come by when talking about “God”, or belief systems. I, actually really enjoyed all that business. I really enjoyed the pontifications by the characters and the ponderous thoughts of the main character. This is not what I had a problem with.

Like I said before, this book cares more about it’s ideas than it does it’s plot. The actual things that happen, and the nature of the narratives propulsive threat are never really explored as much as I would have preferred. I’m all for ambiguity, but this level of ambiguity leads to bad story telling, in my opinion. The driving force in the narrative is basically of the “mystery” variety. When the novel isn’t throwing down thoughts about the nature of “faith”, it uses the discovery of an alien vessel to move the actual story forward. A lot of crazy stuff happens concerning this alien vessel. The alien vessel, acts as both curiosity, which gives us a sense of mystery, and as the central threat. Some really “mysterious” things happen which us keeps the reader invested on a superficial level. The problem I have is this, basically. All of these terrible, and very literal, things happen to the characters, and we are never even given the slightest hint as to what is motivating any of it. The things that happen to the characters are more than just ominous and mysterious. They are literal, and when literal actions occur, I need at least a little literal explanation. Even, though, I did enjoy the books esoteric ideas, when it came to actual plot developments I was left completely frustrated. Maybe it just me, but when bad guys are doing bad things(Even if it’s a subjective scenario), I’d like at least a hint as to why. It keeps you hoping for some type of revelation until the very end. When I realized I only had about five pages left and realized none of my perfectly reasonable questions were not going to be answered, I was pretty irritated. In fact, when after I read the last lines of the book, I threw it across my room and yelled, “Bullshit!”

Ambiguity isn’t something that bothers me in story telling, but when that’s all that there is, it bothers me. It’s almost as if the author just didn’t know how to explain what he had set up. Like, he had painted himself into a corner. I can’t say that ‘Ship Of Fools’is a complete waste of time. It has enough thought provoking ideas to keep you going, but god dammit, if the actual plot isn’t a little light. I didn’t need everything to be put into a tight bow, but I at least needed the ribbon that would have made the bow.


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