A Review of – The Arkship Ulysses by RJ Burgess
Who is he
RJ Burgess writes short stories, reviews, and epic stories. Burgess grew up in England receiving a degree in writing and media. As is typical of college students, he found himself doing odd jobs here and there until he ended up as an English teach in Poland.
His blog is mostly Science Fiction short stories and two longer epics. Here is an excerpt of his description of his own writing: “An active, though somewhat estranged Christian, R J Burgess writes primarily science fiction and fantasy as a means of trying to understand his place in the wider universe and that of humanity as a whole. For him writing is a form of catharsis, an artistic discussion with the world at large in which he can explore and try to understand some of the darker aspects of the human nature while celebrating all that makes us great.” This paragraph aptly describes my experience of his writing.
I have found that his writing has strong religious overtones. Such writing can be bothersome in either direction. In one sense, he might be writing a conversion piece or in another sense, he might be mocking religion itself. Burgess is doing neither. He is writing about the flaws and the good in religion and spirituality. This is an exploration near to my own heart. Churches are imperfect human institutions serving the purposes of God. Like humans, they try and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they miss the mark.
He has several active projects. He has an extensive set of short stories. He has set of book reviews that is mostly thriller and science fiction. And he has two major stories “The Arkship Ulysses” and “Godsend”. I am currently reading “The Arkship Ulysses”.
The Arkship Ulysses
The Arkship Ulysses is set in a dystopian future 1000 years from now. For reasons, not yet explained (I have only finished chapter 4), the Sun began to shut down. In an act of desperation, Earth sent out a set of Arkships looking for places to reestablish humanity. Unfortunately, our Sun was not the only star impacted by “The Wasting”, the Arkship over time found whole sets of stars in the galaxy wasted, cooled and useless as a potential home. The story begins at this point. The inhabitants have likely given up hope finding a new planet to move two. The ship culture itself has devolved into an extreme set of “haves” and “have nots”. The haves are dominated by “the Families” while the have nots are relegated to ghetto like conditions in the underbelly of the ship. The ship barely functions being led by incompetents and no longer able to produce enough food to feed every one. Equipment is failing putting the ship at risk. Corruption is rampant hastening the ships demise and further destroying the social fabric.
The prologue opens with one family being banished because of the father’s corruption. Banishment means the loss of the family name and with that loss exile to the “Bunkers.” Burgess writes an incredibly descriptive and moving description of the “Bunkers” that is based on his experiences visiting Auschwitz. I can say, having read Eli Weisel’s “Night”, that he does an excellent job describing the suffocating closeness of the quarters. He also captures the degradation of humanity in such conditions. If people are treated as animals, eventually they begin to behave as animals. However the “Bunkers” more closely resemble the Warsaw Ghetto in that the Unspoken are recruited daily for tasks such as working the factories, or working the fields or maintaining the ship. With the poor food allotments and non-existent medical care and poor working conditions, these assignments are frequently viewed as death sentences. But a resistance movement is building to atrocities and inequality.
Description of his writing
Burgess story and writing are epic. The chapters are long (that statement coming from me should tell you something). They are 15 pages or more, but the writing rich with description and dialog. I mentioned the Bunkers. So far I have read about the innards of the ship which is equally detailed and interesting. Each chapter is written from a particular point of view – a practice I employ. He writes for more points of view including at least 5 characters that I have seen and possibly more. Each chapter is kept as a PDF making it easy for downloading and offline reading. I have found the blog entries with each chapter very helpful as a means of seeing what the author was trying to say and what I should be watching for in the writing.
I have read through chapter 4. So far I find the plot intriguing and the characters strong, rich and multidimensional. One person who, I think, is supposed to be an antagonist I find myself relating to. The characters have motivations, fears, hope and all the emotions necessary for a rich story. I find his setting descriptions and the background story believable and essential to the plot. The idea that religion would absorb the guilt felt due to abandoning Earth and finding ways to explain the tribulations being felt by passengers of the ship is thoroughly believable. Nor do I find this offensive to religion. Religion is supposed to comfort the afflicted (and afflict the comforted). Holy days in which time is dedicated to God even in the Bunkers would make sense. Has the Church in Arkship Ulysses being doing everything it could to meet the scriptural mandates of protecting passengers? Clearly no. But there are those within the Church who remember those mandates and try to act on them. That sounds strikingly familiar. That ship society has broken down into a quasi feudalistic morass also seems possible although here is where I see the author spinning his yarn. Perhaps the founders had expected to find a colony sooner and thus did not take into account societal issues. Perhaps they were moving so fast, they never got to that bullet point in sending people off.
So far (through chapter 4) this book is relentlessly dark. This is Hamlet without the gravedigger scene to lighten the mood. As such, it isn’t necessarily light lunch time reading. Because it is in PDF format, it makes sense to download the PDFs and read it on a long train ride. The angst in it is weighty needs to be pondered. I can also see some interesting plot twists and turns ahead that will make the relationships interesting. I recommend reading the blogs beforehand to catch where he is going. One final question that sticks in my mind, if one is on an immense prison ship, how does one “escape”? Perhaps I will get an answer to that question.
Tags: Arkship Ulysses, The Arkship Ulyssess, RJ Burgess