When “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was first published in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I was yet to be born. The following year, Roger Zelazny’s story won the Hugo Award for Short Fiction. Fast forward a decade and a half and here’s this skinny Irish kid, born in Camden and relocated to the suburbs, who happens upon Zelazny’s story in a used and battered copy of The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, and Other Stories after I slogged through the first three Amber novels.
Like the Amber novels, most of the stories in The Doors of His Face I couldn’t get my head around as a young teen. Call it the product of the Camden County public school system. Call it the Summer of Weed. Whatever the case, I seemed ill-equipped to grasp what Zelazny had intended. Years later, in 2001, iBooks, Inc. would reissue the collection (before the virtual lion that is Apple crept out of the west and put the kibosh on a promising press), and I would once again come into possession of “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”
If you read science fiction, you know that much of the science in the older tales didn’t stand up to the test of time. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was no different. We have the affordability of hindsight to call out those authors who once speculated what life on Mars may have been like. In Zelazny’s day back in the early 1960s, people believed we would be living on the moon by the year 2000. And a good number of them more than likely still maintained that there was intelligent life on planets close to Earth. As for this particular story, it’s Mars that Zelazny puts his characters: Gallinger the linguist-poet, part of a exploration team, and a dwindling number of Martians who invites the linguist-poet to study the Martian ‘high language’ and translate their religious texts. A catastrophic event, Gallinger learns, has left the Martians sterile. This much Gallinger learns from the Matriarch, M’Cwyie, who provides intense training for the linguist to learn the Martian High Language.
Mixed in the narrative is a backstory regarding Gallinger’s past. Overall, the main character is quick-witted and to some degree he possesses a strange sense of superiority (at least in the beginning of the story) to the reclusive Martians. Then he meets Braxa, a Temple dancer with whom he falls in love. Gallinger and Braxa do end up alone together, and shortly afterward the temple dancer disappears. When Gallinger eventually finds Braxa, the temple dancer tells him that “apparently only our men were affected…” with regard to sterilization. After he learns that the temple dancer is pregnant, Gallinger accompanies Braxa back to the temple to confront M’Cwyie the Matriarch. Despite his wishes, nothing goes according to plan for the linguist-poet.
In this story, there’s the typical fair that was prevalent in much of the science fiction from this era: snappy banter, references to classics from Shakespeare, etc. And while Zelazny sets up Gallinger as something of a prophet for the Martians, a savior of their race what with Braxa’s pregnancy, there exists, at least for me, a rather not so subtle message in the story about privilege, love, deceit, and the clash of cultures.
Another member of the exploration team named Emory confides in Gallinger, upon learning that the linguist-poet is in love with Martian, that he had been a young officer in the Navy when he met his wife-to-be in Japan. Emory goes on to inform Gallinger:
“Where I come from it wasn’t considered right to marry into another race, so we never did. But she was my wife. When she died I was on the other side of the world. They took my children, and I’ve never seen them since…”
Emory goes on to volunteer his aid in Gallinger’s smuggling of his Martian love back to Earth when the team departs. Ultimately, it doesn’t turn out that way. Braxa does not leave Mars. A heartbroken Gallinger returns to his cabin and swallows forty-four sleeping pills. Later, the languishing liguist-poet awakens in the dispensary to witness a blurred Mars “like a swollen belly above me” that “streamed down his face.”
It’s hard to feel sorry for Gallinger. He’s not a very likable fellow; even when he’s crying over the loss of Braxa and the knowledge of the doomed Martian race. Some might argue that Gallinger had become a willing pawn in a game orchestrated by The Matriarch to ensure her race’s survival, but one hybrid child among a generation of Martians destined to die hardly qualifies the Martian Troubles as over. Still, upon revisiting this tale, I cannot help but to think that while Emory’s intention was a pure one Gallinger’s had less to do with saving the Martians and more to do with elevating himself to a god-like status.
On the surface, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a tale about acceptance as much as it is about defiance. More importantly, it is also a tale of privilege gone awry. And Zelazny manages to turn his would-be savior into something less than a hero by the story’s end. In the wake of this, the reader is left to wonder who exercised power and control, and who was exploited and manipulated.