Loving the Alien or, Why Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” Is Worth Another Look

On the surface, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a tale about acceptance as much as it is about defiance.

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.

Confessions of a Literary Troglodyte

There are times when newer is not necessarily better. Call me a dinosaur, but I have been looking around at manual typewriters.

Typewriter-2

But why, you may ask.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I write first drafts in longhand. It doesn’t matter if it’s a poem, a short story, an essay, or a novel. A couple of decades ago, I finished a novel on a typewriter. But I started it longhand. Over the years I have tried various computers and their word processing programs. And all them did me well. Still, for me, there’s nothing like composing a draft with nothing but a legal pad (college-ruled, of course) and a pen. And, as of late, I am wanting for a typewriter to type up intermediate drafts of those hand-written drafts.

Ludicrous you say? Perhaps, but maybe this isn’t about using nearly obsolete technology (the typewriter…not pen and paper…pen and paper will always be around…heck, I can stir up a five-subject notebook in which draft of a novel was written, part of it in pencil…it was a particularly snowy night and my favorite pen had run out of ink…). Maybe it’s about something else. Let me take you back in time.

To say my father was a hoarder would be untrue. He did, however, collect things from time to time. In warmer weather, it was egg shells and coffee grounds to fertilize the lawn. One day he brought home a manual typewriter from work. I was in the sixth grade. Or maybe it was end of my fifth grade year. My family moved out of the Fairview section of Camden, NJ in May 1977 and went out to the suburbs (Runnemede…Exit 3 for Jersey natives everywhere).

Back then there were perhaps two things in the world that interested me most. One, comic books. I was a Marvel Comics guy. The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Prince Namor, and others. Doctor Strange was too out there for me, but not for long. Later, by the eighth grade, weed would take care of that. But I digress…The second thing? Science fiction and fantasy novels. So it was no stretch that between comic books and sci-fi/fantasy novels, and the manual typewriter, I thought I would make up my own story. There was a comic book I bought called Man-God (Marvel Comics). The story was about a guy who had, you guessed it, god-like qualities. His name was Hugo Danner. You can read more about Man-God here, but do come back. There’s more.

Near the typewriter there was a pocket dictionary with a red plastic cover. It may have belonged to my brother. It may have belonged to one of my sisters. I mention this because I took perfect sheets of typing paper, traced the outline of the little red dictionary on the top page, and proceeded to cut them down to size. Afterward, my mother extolled the virtue of not being wasteful. For her, all things paper were expensive. Obviously, typing paper was expensive, as were loose leaf, napkins, paper towels, and the ever-present supply of brown paper lunch bags in our home (I went through a spell in the second grade making puppets out of brown paper lunch bags…and then throwing them away). My mother would turn out to be a formidable foe in my homemade book project.

For a week, I petitioned my parents to let me tear the little dictionary out of its cover and then use the cover for my little story.

“You shouldn’t destroy books, Richard,” my mother had told me.

“I’m not going to destroy the little dictionary,” I said. “I just want the cover to make a book.”

“And what will you do to keep the pages in it?”

“Use glue,” I answered.

“You will get it all over,” my mother concluded.

When I put the question to my father, who had selective listening down to a science, he simply remarked, “Not the good dictionary?”

In our house there were few different dictionaries. Paperback ones we carted to school. The aforementioned Little Red Dictionary. And the coveted “good dictionary” which was a two-volume hardbound Merriam-Webster set my father had inherited from his father.

“What do you want to do with the little dictionary?” my father asked.

“I want to use the cover for my book,” I told him.

“Ask your brother and sisters,” he replied.

While the jury was still out, I went to work composing my little story which, as I recall, was inspired by, if not a complete rip-off of, Man-God. As an eleven-year-old boy, I had no idea how hard typing could be. It didn’t take long to find out. Sadly, I no longer have that old story in my possession. If I had, you can bet I would post it here.

So we fast-forward a bit to my high school years. The manual typewriter remained in our home until it was replaced by an electric typewriter. The three-prong plug on the electric typewriter was off-setting. And, to use the parlance of my dearly departed mother, the ‘contraption’ made a lot of noise. From that electric typewriter I graduated to another electric typewriter, a Brother daisy wheel model. Between the two, I did my fair share of typing out second drafts of my hand-written stories. These were glorious days. Well, at least until my junior year of high school. But this is not about ills of high school romance and the agony of teen love lost…

In truth, I was reluctant to embrace computer technology when it came along. In time, however, I learned to use it and rather well. Nevertheless, I still yearn for those days at my parents’ kitchen table, or out on the back porch where my mother kept a small table or another and a couple of chairs over the years (primarily, as a smoking lounge of sorts), when I would sit at the typewriter, pound out a few pages, and dream of other worlds.

I still dream of other worlds, of course. That much will never change. Call me crazy, but there is something to be said about the noise of good old-fashioned typewriter; to say nothing of the imperfect print and smudge that comes with honest writing. The clatter will never bring back those days from when I was young; no more than it can bring back my parents. Maybe it will rattle some memories, and I will write an honest work about the two people in my life who encouraged this writing thing. And if not, I can sure try and make some noise.