Monday, October 11, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Gallinger is from Mars, Davits is from Venus

I thought I'd bundle these two together, because they occupy a similar place in my mental landscape. They were already anachronistic when they were written, throwbacks to the era of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Zelazny knew this and commented that he'd have just one chance to write a story of this type, so he'd better do a good job. He wrote one story set on Mars and one set on Venus.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes

The story is narrated by a brilliant poet and linguist named Gallinger (though I always misremember it as "Gallagher") He's selected to go to Mars and in order to learn the  language of the Martians and to read their ancient holy books. While in the course of this, he is seduced by Braxa, a Martian dancer, and she becomes pregnant.

This is disturbing to the Martians, because they had resigned themselves to extinction (because all the men of the species are sterile): "Death was decided, voted upon, and passed, shortly after it appeared in this form.  But long before, before the followers of Locar knew.  They decided it long ago.  `We have done all things,' they said, 'we have seen all things, we have heard and felt all things. The dance was good.  Now let it end.'"  Zelazny expresses a similar sentiment about the Pei'ans from Isle of the Dead: "Since their greatest scholars have already written the last chapter in the immense History of Pei'an Culture, in 14,926 volumes, they may have decided that there's no reason to continue things any further."

Gallinger harangues the Martians from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which mirrors the pessimism of the Martian texts. They all live happily ever after, except for Gallinger, who tries to kill himself when his Martian Baby-Mama leaves him.

That's a bit harsher than such a good story deserves. It's almost universally regarded as one of Zelazny's finest works, but it never did it for me. I don't know why. I can appreciate that it's wonderfully crafted story, but it just leaves me cold. Perhaps it's because I never grew up with the pulps and there was never a time where I could take the concept of a humanlike Martian seriously. It's like seeing Laurence Olivier performing Hamlet in a Barney costume. Yeah, he's going to give an awesome performance, but no matter how great he is, my attention is going to be on the fact that he's holding that skull in a big purple paw. And even though I know the problem lies not with the story, but rather, with my perception of it, but I just can't get over that to appreciate it as much as it deserves.

And it's a shame, because I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into constructing it, but I don't derive much enjoyment from reading it. I mean, I like everything but the Martians, but the problem is, they're pretty central to the story. Still, it was quite a number of beautiful lines:

Go, Gallinger.  Dip your bucket in the well, and bring us a drink of Mars.  Go, learn another world--but remain aloof, rail at it gently like Auden--and hand us its soul in iambics.

-All the truly sacred names of God are blasphemous things to speak!

The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth

Also a pulp story at its heart, but somehow it didn't bother me. I guess it's the absence of humanoid aliens. It takes place on Venus, but the location isn't vital to the story like it is with Rose. If you moved it to a water planet called Poseidon or something, the story would still work today.

Our narrator here is Carlton Davits self-described "playboy fishing enthusiast". He went broke trying to land Ichthyform Leviosaurus Levianthus, generally known as "Ikky".

Though we don't find out until we're well into the story, Carl lost his nerve once Ikky was hooked.

Fresh narco-tanks had been connected. It needed another shot, fast. But I was paralyzed.

It had made a noise like God playing a Hammond organ...

And looked at me!

I don't  know if seeing is even the same process in eyes like those. I doubt it. Maybe I was just a gray blur behind a black  rock, with the plexi-reflected sky hurting its  pupils. But it fixed on me. Perhaps the snake doesn't really paralyze the rabbit, perhaps it's just that rabbits are cowards by constitution. But it began to struggle and I still couldn't move, fascinated.

Fascinated by all that power, by those eyes, they found me there fifteen minutes later, a little broken about the head and shoulders, the Inject still unpushed.

And I dream about those eyes. I want to face them once  more, even if their finding takes forever. I've got to know if there's something inside me that sets  me apart from  a rabbit, from notched plates of reflexes and instincts that always fall apart in exactly the same way whenever the proper combination is spun.

His ex-wife, Jean Luharich wants to land an Ikky, and Carl is hired as the baitman, the guy who swims ahead of the vessel. They eventually catch Ikky and circumstances conspire to place Jean in the same situation that Carl once faced, a partially narcotized Ikky mesmerizing her. He could have pushed the button, but he convinces Jean to do it so she doesn't torment herself the way he did for so many years.

"He's big, Carl!" she cried.

And he grew, and grew, and grew uneasy...


He looked down.

He looked down, as the god of our most ancient ancestors might have looked down.  Fear, shame, and mocking laughter rang in my head. Her head, too?


She looked up at the nascent earthquake.

"I can't!"

It was going to be so damnably simple this time, now the rabbit had died. I reached out.

I stopped.

"Push it yourself."

"I can't. You do it. Land him, Carl!"

"No. If I do, you'll wonder for the rest of your life whether you could have. You'll throw  away your soul finding out. I know you will, because we're alike, and I did it that way. Find out now!"

She stared.

I gripped her shoulders.

"Could be that's me out there," I offered. "I am a green sea serpent, a hateful, monstrous beast, and out to destroy you. I am answerable to no one. Push the Inject."

Her hand moved to the button, jerked back.


She pushed it.

I like that. I was talking to a friend not that long ago, and we agreed that there are some acts that one must do for oneself. If you're deep in a pit, you've got to climb out on your own. Where a good friend comes in is that he can hold the ladder for you. And that's what Carl's doing here. I think now that Carl and Jean are more grounded, they can rekindle their relationship informed by that new maturity.


  1. I never got why everyone raved about A Rose for Ecclesiastes either. Yes it has Zelazny's fantastic poetry and imagery, but nothing memorable.

    As far as the plot goes, it's a jumble. It doesn't really tie together and it's most just a mixture of the banal and the memorable.

    The concept is actually a hash over of the most panned in sci-fi - Adam and Eve - and exhibits rather than breaks the most as to why it should be avoided.

    The only thing I can think which might make people all mushy for it is because its the first thing Zelazny wrote that's over around 4000 words and he had a lot of fans already who knew he was something special and were both titilated and frustrated by early works like Horseman! and finally here was something that showed there might be the promise of a novel in him.

    Either that, or they, being secularist savages were so impressed by his reference to scripture mistook it singularly as evidence of his depth and talent. But by that measure, they'd also have to praise Footloose as a great work of Art.

    1. I meant to say "mostly just a mixture of the banal and the boring". This Loki 3GS appears to be haunted by the troglodytic ghost of the author and attempting to prevent me from getting a good one-liner in at a dead man's expense.

  2. Wow, commenting via smartphone is a grammatical challenge (to say the least) and I will never misjudge English teachers' online posts again.

    I just wanted to add the I thought "The Doors of..." to be a good fun yarn in the same spirit of "This Mortal Moment, etc." but its one big flaw was the rabbit in the headlights gimmick of the protagonist's one big flaw.