Roger Zelazny was a master wordsmith, and Rose is one of his early masterpieces. It is so skillfully written that one doesn’t even notice that it is more akin to a Greek tragedy than to science fiction. And one doesn’t mind that even when it becomes apparent. Rose is a tale of hubris and hope, wrapped in a language that is rarely matched.
Gallinger is the world’s foremost linguist and one of the best poets the planet ever produced, and he knows it. He is extremely well read and traveled, but he is abrasive and dismissive of everyone else, and people try their best to avoid him. He is part of an expedition to Mars, to study the Martians and their culture. He also becomes the first human allowed to study the Martians’ sacred texts that describe their history and religion. To do so, however, he must first learn the High Language, which is a welcome challenge.
Gallinger is tutored by the High Priestess. He not only quickly masters the language and begins to translate the sacred texts, but his insights, experience with other literature and poetic skills earn him respect in the Martian society, and an invitation to stay at their temple. There, he is invited to witness a religious dance. He becomes infatuated by the dancer. The sacred texts that he is write about a calamity some time in the past, which prevented the Martians from bearing children. The race is dying out, and the Martians accept it as inevitable. Gallinger realizes that the sacred books are bleak and fatalistic and elicit the same vibe as the human Ecclesiastes. He endeavors to translate it to the High Language.
Soon thereafter, Gallinger starts a relationship with the dancer. He impregnates her, but he doesn’t know it at first; he learns of it when she disappears from the temple. Upon finding her in the desert, he learns she ran away in fear that a child would violate their fatalistic religion. Gallinger also realizes that only Martian males are sterile, and infertility could be reverted by Martian women mating with humans. He promises to convince the High Priestess to give her race a chance at growth again. He does so by reading his translation of Ecclesiastes to the entire religious congregation and pointing out that mankind transcended the bleak message and prospered ever since. He is successful, but he learns that his entire effort was part of another religious prophecy. Only by overcoming all the obstacles in his way to deliver his speech, and by the nature of his speech, he fulfilled the prophecy and thus only played his part in the predetermined course of events. Unfortunately for him, Gallinger also learns that the dancer was aware of the prophecy and played her part, without any feelings towards him. For someone so dismissive of other people, the realization that he has been deceived by the first person he loved deeply shocks him. He leaves Mars heartbroken, tries to kill himself and fails.
As I said in the introduction, Zelazny was a true wordsmith. He got even more refined in his latter stories, but even here his writing style is the most obvious and best executed element of this story. Rose is narrated by Gallinger, and so it is no surprise that the writing is poetic and full of references to religious and classic literature. Gallinger’s education and experience seeps from every page, and it is very easy to believe that he is indeed the best linguist Earth has to offer. However, he is also aloof and dismissive of the people around him, always sure of himself, and so his infatuation with the dancer and her eventual rejections hit very hard and true. Zelazny was setting us up all the way to this conclusion, which would have sounded excessive if the protagonist wasn’t so well developed.
Science doesn’t take a backseat in this story; it had been thrown out of the window way before the story started. Rose was published only a few years after Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, but by then few people took the idea of an advanced Martian civilization seriously. And nobody could imagine an attraction or even crossbreeding between our two races. Both aspects of the story are secondary. They could easily be substituted with a Mayan or any other ancient civilization on Earth. As such, Zelazny’s work can hardly be considered science fiction, which is why I believe it is so important for the genre. Along with other stories with a similar style, Rose helped to blur the definition of science fiction into speculative fiction. It removed the scientific limitations of the genre and opened it to whole new possibilities. Likewise, it belongs among stories that introduced science fiction to a wider audience, who would previously avoid the genre due to its reliance on science and technology.
A Rose for Ecclesiastes can be found for free, legally, on the Escape Pod Web site, both in text and very high-quality audio format, so nobody has any excuse not to experience this wonderful story.