Ship of Fools (Russo novel)

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Ship of Fools (Unto Leviathan)
Ship of Fools, Richard Paul Russo (book cover).jpg
1st edition cover
Author Richard Paul Russo
Cover artist Bruce Jensen
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction
Publisher Ace Books, later Orbit Books under the name Unto Leviathan
Publication date
January 9, 2001
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 370 pp
ISBN 0-441-00798-8
OCLC 45772927
813/.54 21
LC Class PS3568.U8122 S55 2001

Ship of Fools is a science fiction novel by Richard Paul Russo. First published in 2001, it won the Philip K. Dick Award for that year.

The novel has been rereleased by Orbit Books under the name Unto Leviathan.


The Argonos is a space-faring generation ship containing thousands of humans. The Argonos has presumably been traveling through space for centuries upon centuries. The original goal of the Argonos has been lost over time; no one on board can say for certain of their origins. A class-system has developed in which the commoners and poor serve in the lower levels and provide maintenance for the ship. By contrast, the upper-class maintain positions of power. A Bishop sits as the head of the Church which wields some influence over the people, and the Bishop himself is a member of the Executive Council which governs the Argonos. When a signal is received, a team aboard the Argonos prepare to make a landing on the first alien planet which has been encountered in years.


The story is told by the reserved Bartolomeo Aguilera whose cunning and bravery contribute to the outcome of the novel. Born with physical defects, he has integrated prosthetic material into his body as compensation. Bartolomeo is a close friend and advisor of the Argonos' captain, Nikos.

Within the first few chapters it is clear that Nikos is in an increasingly dangerous situation and that tensions on the ship are beginning to rise. Niko's credibility as captain is declining and many are ready for a new leader. Nikos informs Bartolomeo of news which may help to improve or reduce Nikos' position. While the Bishop's previous failed landing helped to place Nikos in good light, there seems little to improve Nikos' ordeal. A planet suitable for human life has been discovered. It is a short distance away and therefore a landing can be attempted, but more importantly, a signal has been sent from the planet. It is an incredibly basic signal offering no information as to who sent it or why. Nikos asks Bartolomeo to join the team which is to land on the planet, which the Bishop soon names Antioch.

The team consists of representatives of the Executive Council, Bartolomeo included, and of the different classes on the ship. The crew, along with harvesters which are to collect and process materials for the Argonos, descend on the planet. Antioch, as they soon discover, is deserted, and has long been so. Although the team visits fewer than five of the complexes, there are presumably numerous cities around the planet. All of them contain enigmatic, ghost-like, structures.

The first startling discovery the team makes foreshadows the epiphany of evil which looms over the Argonos for the latter part of the book. A number of human remains are found outside of the city-complexes. The remains are all but decayed with only bones remaining, and the few intact skeletons they find reveal no apparent trauma or instance of a violent death. However, the second discovery haunts the team even after leaving the planet.

The team enters a glass-structure which at first reveals nothing about the world or its former inhabitants. They uncover a staircase winding down underground to another chamber. At the bottom of the staircase, lies a nightmare: in a vast room there are contained, on hooks and in chains, an unimaginable number of mutilated skeletons, some of which resemble children. The Argonos is contacted at once and the team decides it is time to leave.

The Argonos prepares to leave orbit but amongst the underclasses there is talk of settling on Antioch. Par, a friend of Bartolomeo asks him for his help in a planned insurrection; the common people desire to leave Argonos and live on Antioch. Bartolomeo agrees to help and he obtains access codes for the bay-doors and shuttles. The operation fails miserably and several participants, including Bartolomeo, are taken into custody. Nikos, Bartolomeo soon discovers, knew about Bartolomeo's involvement and used it to his advantage and assert himself as captain. Bartolomeo remains in prison for months on end when he is finally released.

He stands before the Executive Council and defends his reasons for aiding in the operation. Under his advice, other political prisoners are released. Bartolomeo's position as advisor is reinstated and he is updated on a new mystery which Argonos has come across.

Upon the team's entry into the building on Antioch, a signal from the building was sent deep into space. While the team was never informed, Nikos decided to travel to where the signal had been sent. Thus, they have found an alien ship. A vast, immeasurable, structure lies in the dead of space. The behemoth, which is much greater in size than the Argonos, appears just as silent and uninhabited as Antioch.

Bartolomeo takes head of the team which has been attempting to explore the mysterious ship. There had already been a number of deaths, and other 'incidents' while exploring the ship. Bartolomeo therefore ensures that extra precautions are taken as he takes control.

No sooner after Bartolomeo assumes control of the operations aboard the ship, the mystery becomes even greater. An old woman is found in a compartment in the ship. At first, she is unable to understand the languages used to communicate with her. Eventually, she begins to communicate with scientists in English. She claims to have been from Antioch and the aliens saved her people but can clarify nothing else in her delirious state.

The Executive Committee decides that rather than exploring the staggeringly huge vessel, they will attach the ship to the Argonos and take it with them as they continue to explore the galaxy. This proves to be a horrible mistake as the true nature of the ship is revealed.

While searching for a young boy who sneaked aboard the ship, Bartolomeo uncovers a horrifying part of the puzzle; a chamber containing mangled corpses, like the ones uncovered on Antioch but in greater quantity. It becomes clear that the aliens who committed the genocidal acts on Antioch are on board the alien vessel.

Bartolomeo calls an emergency meeting with the Executive Council and tells those taking care of the rescued woman to seal the room and sedate her. A sudden realization occurs: How did the old woman know that they had named the planet 'Antioch'? She is, as deduced by Bartolomeo, an alien. She is sedated and ejected into space, but not before momentarily transforming into something other than human.

Attempts made to separate the alien vessel from the Argonos fail. Weapons have no effect. As panic begins to intensify aboard the ship, a final plan is devised. The residents on the Argonos will be crammed into the harvesters and shuttles, and they will travel to the planet Antioch. To rid themselves of the aliens, Nikos, and a few other trusted crewmen will remain aboard the ship and conduct a random jump out of the solar system, possibly out of space-time and thereby taking the alien vessel with them.

The plan is put into action and while the alien vessel struggles to free itself from the Argonos, the two star-ships are soon gone. The story ends with the convoy still on its way to Antioch, although Bartolomeo hopes for the future.