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Ship of Fools

Entry updated 22 August 2022. Tagged: Theme.

A traditional Fantasy theme dating back to medieval times, in which a ship – the Narrenschiff or Ship of Fools – carries all sorts of persons on an endless voyage in search of Utopia, providing an easily visualizable literal vehicle for allegorical Satire on the follies of humanity, the most famous such vehicle probably being "The Ship of Fools" (before 1500) by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450-1516). The definitive literary realization of the topos is Die Narrenschiff (1494; trans Alexander Barclay as The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde 1509) by Sebastian Brant (1457-1521); there are many later (much improved) translations, as partially described in Aurelius Pompen's The English Versions of the Ship of Fools (1925) [for Ship of Fools in general also see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. In the confused mosaic of sailors' lore, a cauldron of story which disintegrated rapidly with the coming of steam, the immense Great Ship or Ship of Fools, which transports dead sailors to the saturnalian afterlife Island known as Fiddlers' Green, is sometimes conflated with the Green itself (see Generation Starship below). The novel Fiddlers' Green; Or, the Strange Adventure of Tommy Lawn: A Tale of the Great Divide of the Sailormen (1931) by Albert Richard Wetjen (1900-1948) learnedly unpacks the implications of this nest of topoi.

As a controlling metaphor, the "ship of fools" has subtended many subsequent works. Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) is set on a Mississippi riverboat easy to trace from Brant's original. Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark (1876) is a comic though ultimately disquieting example. The eponymous ship-like island at the heart of Jules Verne's L'Île à hélice (1895 2vols; trans W J Gordon as The Floating Island; or, The Pearl of the Pacific 1896) is a full-blown ship of fools. 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), Richard Cowper's Profundis (1979), Damon Knight's CV (1985), James Lovegrove's The Hope (1990), Melvin Jules Bukiet's Signs and Wonders (1999) and Antonia Honeywell's The Ship (2015). 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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