Ship of Fools

Tagged: Theme

A traditional Fantasy theme dating back to medieval times, in which a ship – the Narrenschiff or Ship of Fools – carrying all sorts of persons provides a literal vehicle for allegorical Satire on the follies of humanity; this is further discussed in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy [see links below]. Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark (1876) is a comic though ultimately disquieting example. Bird Life at the Pole by Commander Christopher Robin (1931) by Wolcott Gibbs (1902-1958) satirizes the 1930s Media Landscape. The Noah's Ark legend is occasionally seen in such a light, as in H G Wells's All Aboard for Ararat (1940), T H White's The Elephant and the Kangaroo (1947) and Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (coll of linked stories 1989).

Sf novels set on sea-vessels which to a greater or lesser degree echo the Ship of Fools theme include Fenner Brockway's Purple Plague: A Tale of Love and Revolution (1935), Countess Gabrielle Hessenstein's Monkey Paradise: A Tale of the Jungle (1945), John Bowen's After the Rain (1958), Martin Bax's The Hospital Ship (1976), Damon Knight's CV (1985), James Lovegrove's The Hope (1990) and Melvin Jules Bukiet's Signs and Wonders (1999). A non-sf instance is Terry Southern's The Magic Christian (1959), loosely adapted as a 1969 film with the same title. In Frank Herbert's The Dragon in the Sea (November 1955-January 1956 Astounding as "Under Pressure"; 1956; vt 21st Century Sub 1956; vt Under Pressure 1974), the literal and psychological pressures of a voyage deep Under the Sea push folly to the brink of insanity. The very many nautical homages in China Miéville's The Scar (2002) include an expansion of the Ship to a vast Armada of Fools with a hubristic mission. Switching modes of Transportation, the film Snowpiercer (2013) directed by Joon-ho Bong is set on an enormous train whose passengers or inhabitants comprise a traditional spectrum of fools.

In science fiction, the theme is easily and logically extended to a Spaceship of fools. Some examples are the deluded amateur Scientists of Theodore Sturgeon's "The Pod and the Barrier" (September 1957 Galaxy as "The Pod in the Barrier"; vt in A Touch of Strange, coll 1958), the bickering star-travellers in John Brunner's Mysterious Stranger tale Sanctuary in the Sky (1960 dos), the brasshats and bureaucrats in Eric Frank Russell's The Great Explosion (fixup 1962), and the lunar expedition crew of William F Temple's Shoot at the Moon (1966). Thematic resonances are also felt in Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun (1987), which opens aboard a vast space-traversing ship with sails, where intimations of Transcendence are blurred by relatively petty assassination plots. More distant echoes of the Ship of Fools are found in many a Generation Starship (which see) whose inhabitants have forgotten or slipped into denial about their true mission, a late example being Richard Paul Russo's Ship of Fools (2001; vt Unto Leviathan 2003). [DRL]

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