I don’t know why exactly, but this book always haunts me. It’s one of the few novels I like to re-read, and I’m currently on my fourth go at it. Here be spoilers, by the way. So read no further if you want to read the book in innocence.
Russo is not as well-known (nor as prolific) as the likes of Stephen Baxter and Charles Stross, writers I also admire, and he hasn’t produced excellence as consistently as Tim Powers or Robert Charles Wilson, but there’s something about this particular book.
It won the Philip K Dick award in 2001, which is a good pedigree. Tim Powers won the same award for his Dinner at Deviant’s Palace and The Anubis Gates. Confusingly, Russo’s book is published under two titles: my copy says Ship of Fools on the cover. Others you might see have Unto Leviathan.
It’s a First Contact story, and it’s a deep space opera story, and it’s a derelict ship story. I particularly like derelict ship stories. The crew of a generation star ship, centuries into a voyage, come across a planet which once had a colony but now has ruins and bones. The Argonos is a huge ship which has been in space so long that nobody knows what its original mission was, due to a past event which saw ship’s records destroyed. Another event follows the discovery of the planet of bones: an attempted mass breakout by the ship’s underclass, the workers who do all the drudge work. This fails, and the ringleaders are jailed, including the captain’s right hand man, and our narrator: Bartolomeo.
Some time later, Bartolomeo is released from jail because another crisis is brewing: the Argonos has followed a signal from the dead planet and discovered an apparently derelict (and even bigger) ship. Several crew exploring the ship have met with unusual “accidents” and rumours are circulating that the ship is evil.
Bartolomeo is awarded the poisoned chalice of taking over the exploration. Meanwhile, power struggles on the Argonos make everyone unstable and jumpy. The too-powerful religious leader of the Argonos, the Bishop, is making power plays and insisting they abandon the evil ship. But is he up to something, or is he actually right?
After months of finding nothing, they stumble across a survivor. An old woman in rags, living in a pressurised corner of the ship, living off paste from a wall dispenser. She’s incoherent, but human, on a ship clearly not built by humans. They take her back to the Argonos for medical care.
After a while, she wakes up and says a few words about being rescued from the planet of bones by aliens.
But the name she gives for the planet is that coined by the Bishop himself. Too late, Bartolomeo realises that she’s not human and that they have stumbled into a trap.
It’s a tremendous read, full of danger and tension, power struggles, and a strong sense of mysterium tremendum and awefulness.
Worth reading again and again!