Friday, December 30, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #13: A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny

Zelazny, Roger. "A Rose for Ecclesiastes." The Magazine of Science Fiction, November 1963.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.14/10
My Rating:        7/10

"I was busy translating one of my Madrigals Macabre into Martian on the morning I was found acceptable."

Wraparound cover by Hannes Bok,
depicting "A Rose for Ecclesiastes."
Gallinger, a gifted linguist and poet, was destined for the church, but was instead seduced by eastern culture and language. Now he finds himself on Mars, the first human to be allowed to enter the Martian temple and access their ancient sacred texts. The Martians are ancient and cultured, yet they are sterile as a result of a weather event from long ago, referred to as "the Rains," and these ancient people are the last of their kind. Moreover, as there resides in this ancient race an innate pessimism, it is challenging to discuss possibilities for their future.

Gallinger is an arrogant poet, disliked by many on the expedition. He becomes acquainted with one of the most skilled of the Martian dancers, Braxa, unknowingly seduces her, and they fall in love. This is the first experience of real love for another for the arrogant poet, and when Braxa falls pregnant and disappears into the Martian desert, Gallinger searches desperately for her. It is through this desperation, also, that Gallinger begins to see others in a different, more human light.

Gallinger is arrogant to the point that the text was difficult at times to read, and since it was published in 1963, there is lacking a certain sensitivity that prevents minimizing the idea of othering. Not only are the Martians (Easterners) patronized, but so are the women. As expected, Gallinger wins out over the Martians' innate pessimism, and does so quite cleverly, and yet in an excellent, unpredicted twist, his arrogance is pounded down, so that a victory over the fate of a race is simultaneously a personal defeat over this proud man.

There is a point to the arrogance; it is not merely the author's whim to create this character in such a way, but the trait is essential to the plot. This does not, however, make the character likeable. In addition, though technologically advanced, Earth is culturally retarded. Humans can make lengthy expeditions to other planets, yet interracial marriage is still frowned upon to the point that couples are kept physically separated. These details are a little odd, and more appropriate for a story published a decade a earlier, but I would think by 1963 our outlook on race relations of the future should not have been so stalled in its age, and I don't see that Zelazny was trying to make a particular point about the ship's captain having ben separated from his easter family, other than making a link with Gallinger.

Moreover, as with many stories of the period, the 1960s have run amok. Smoking is common, even on ships where you'd think oxygen was at a premium. At one point, comical to the contemporary lens, when Gallinger needs to catch his breath after a physuical fight, he lights a cigarette. On Mars, which of course has breathable air. Even Captain Kirk was more advanced. But of course the story is not about the science of space travel or Mars exploration or whether it is still cool for poets to smoke cigarettes, and half a century from now we might be scoffing at what contemporary speculative fiction authors are putting to paper today. Likely my own children will snicker at this silly little article.


Todd Mason said...

You know, I haven't re-read this story since I was about twelve, but at that time I took Zelazny to be mocking the blindered racism (or in this case speciesism) inherent in the situation. I should look again. Though the hipsterism of pulling out a coffin nail for all stressful or contemplative times is indeed a matter of The Then Now (and authorial smokers were likely to want a little nicotine high under such circumstances, as too many of the 1963 readers would know firsthand)...and there was little hard-edged chrome in Zelazny's story here.

Interesting. Still suspect it ages less badly than, say, Heinlein.

Casual Debris said...

The smoking & breathable Martian atmosphere really didn't bother me; it was amusing. I recently read PK Dick's first collected stories & the 1950s are truly alive in his future, not just smoking but those housewives... I liked the story & most of what I've read from Zelazny. I do find the ship's captain's story out of place. While of course he was commenting on racism, this far in the future you'd think there would be some cultural evolution.

RM said...

Well...stories are of their eras, and we sure haven't corralled all the chauvinisms sufficiently yet. I did kind of enjoy the symmetry of the Mars in "A Martian Odyssey", reasonably up to date with 1930s understanding (if still kinda giving the atmosphere too much O2) and "Rose" (uaing a rather similar Mars with rather more humanoid natives) as fanciful, in THE SF HALL OF FAME volume 1...Bradbury being a bridge, albeit his story there verges on being a horror story out and out. By intent, of course.

TM said...

TM who can't type, that is.

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