Ship of Fools (or Unto Leviathan) by Richard Paul Russo

by Christopher O’Halloran (@BurgleInfernal)

Space travel requires much: a team of engineers, experts in their fields; physically fit specimens capable of operating a ship in a hostile environment; and a buttload of math, science, and code.

Writing about space travel is a whole ‘nother beast. The ingredients are as follows: a stolid protagonist with a strong moral compass; a love interest who challenges our protagonist; political intrigue; and wise-cracking sidekicks.

If you’re looking for a space opera with chilling and innovative horror elements, look no further than Richard Paul Russo’s Ship of Fools.

Cover of Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo. Cover shows an astronaut in space being beamed up into a very high tech and futuristic space ship.


Richard Paul Russo, born 1954, is a science-fiction author who has won the Philip K. Dick Award twice: once in 1990 for his novel, Subterranean Gallery, and again in 2002 for Ship of Fools. Aside from Ship of Fools, Russo is known for his Carlucci series: a cyberpunk noir, following the titular detective through three novels.

While Ship of Fools is no detective story, it presents the reader with more questions than answers—much like a mystery.


The Argonos—an enormous starship wandering aimlessly through the galaxy for generations—is home to all the demographics you’d see in a large city: a ruling class seeking control, a lower class seeking freedom, a religious sect operating in secrecy, and Bartolomeo, a cybernetically enhanced human seeking a great cup of coffee. Amidst political maneuvering, the Argonos searches fruitlessly for life among the stars. All politics are put on hold, however, when an unidentified transmission lures them toward a nearby planet—and into a horrifying danger that isn’t fully realized until it’s too late.


The discussion began with much trepidation. HOWLers saw early flaws in the worldbuilding, the prose, and the character relationships (“Ya know what this story about class divides and horrible death needs?” asks @Semaphore Raven, “ROMANCE.” To which @Golfwang says, “It really seems to be heading that way. She smells like honey and cinnamon, how can he possibly resist?”) Despite Father Veronica’s pleasant smell, the actual book smelled more like Vegemite.

Vegemite Book is a term coined by @Fossie. It refers to a story that you either love or hate. One user who fell in the latter category—and who should really be the one writing this review—is @mob.

From the get-go, he had issues with the worldbuilding, plot-holes, and character inconsistencies/weaknesses. “The horror aspects could just as equally apply to a historical voyage and a mysterious temple,” he says, “and absolutely nothing about the plot would change, except technology would become magic.” At first it seemed like his biggest issue would be with the setting and why this didn’t need to be sci-fi, but by the end of our reading, he had provided 3,500 articulate and well-thought out words critically taking apart the characters and their motivations.

“I stopped moving boxes around to catch up on the chat and I live for @mob shitting on this book,” says @SemaphoreRaven, speaking even for those of us who enjoyed the book.

Though the sheer amount of shit heaped on this novel was staggering, many HOWLers enjoyed the ride with many ratings of 9/10. Yes, the prose does a little more telling than showing; yes, some of the mysteries go unsolved; yes, some plot devices feel a little contrived, but those who could let some of that slide got a lot from the book.

“It’s a smooth read, hard to put down, almost made me late to work this morning,” says @Zodac, capturing exactly what many of us felt. It zips through, introducing ominous elements at every turn. The characters care about each other, and consequently, make you care about them as well. Their interactions don’t always go the way you expect them to, and that adds to the enjoyment. Bathe it all in a creepy atmosphere with a touch of mysterious menace, and you start to understand why this novel won the Philip K. Dick award.

Despite how easily @mob was able to tear it to pieces.


  • The premise of this book holds a lot of promise and does keep you turning the pages, but ultimately the writing and character development get worse as the story goes on.

  • If this book had just one more year of development and revision with an editor, it could very well be one of the best horror novels ever written. Nevertheless, there’s still so much to enjoy, especially with Russo’s ability to inspire curiosity—this story is more or less “imagination porn.” I can see why it won the Philip K. Dick Award despite its shortcomings.
    ~@Lord Mordi

  • A diffuse mess of concept, theme, and plot that would’ve done better as a historical fantasy. Good pacing, but little else. In different hands—or with a editor who cared about plot-holes—it could’ve been something.

  • Riveting sci-fi/horror adventure that explores religious themes. You’ll like it if you like event horizon!

  • This book is just alright. I don’t regret reading it, but I couldn’t in good faith recommend it wholeheartedly. Good pacing and intriguing world building are overshadowed by mediocre writing and frustrating plot holes/lack of development.

  • It says something that I have nothing to say.

  • Ship of Fools is full of intriguing ideas that never reach their full potential. It’s frustrating to see a book that could be so good, be so…not.


Ship of Fools provides much to chew on: religious symbolism, political maneuvering, gruesome visuals, and shocking twists. It also comes with a fair amount of flaws within the prose, the setting, and the story itself. If you can look past that, you’ll find an intriguing space-faring story in the same vein as Star Wars and Alien.


Leave a Reply