Friday, June 6, 2014

Roger Zelazny Book Review: A Rose for Ecclesiastes - Revised Review

I said in April that I would revisit A Rose for Ecclesiastes, to see if my opinions on it had changed.

I had such an experience with Slaughterhouse Five in eighth grade. It had been almost universally praised. I sat down and read it in one sitting, and got up without seeing what the big deal was. When I read it again as a young adult, I found it almost unbearably sad.

I've occasionally been somewhat...glib about Rose, as some of my haiku about it show:

meets dancer. Bow-chikka-wow!
Poet needed to 
Repopulate Mars. Good work
if you can get it.
(I like the comments on that one) 

I was hoping that I might experience another such epiphany regarding Rose.

But, alas, it was not to be.

First, a couple qualifiers. From the beginning, I've always tried to make it clear that these reviews were just opinion pieces,


and I borrowed the words of Fiona to describe them as "a subjective, intuitive, and biased list." I was writing about my favorite author and what I liked (and more rarely, disliked) about each story, not whether I thought each was good or bad, a determination I'm certainly not qualified to make. The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny is a legitimate work of scholarship, and these blog posts are not.

With that said, I've tried to approach the process with a certain amount of intellectual rigor, laying out support for what amounts to my thesis statement with facts which were as demonstrable as possible. ("I liked Deadboy Donner because of elements X, Y and Z and these lines.")

I'll be the first to admit that Rose is a great story. (I understand that this is not a controversial statement in the world of Zelazny fandom.) It's just not a story I like, and I don't think I ever will. That's a shame, as it's one of the most beloved stories by my very favorite author.

I'm usually pretty good at articulating why I like or dislike something, so I sat down with the story with the intent of trying to isolate why I've never enjoyed it. I've come to believe that it's not any one thing, but rather a death by a thousand cuts.

The Setting

It's Mars. Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars, Mars, full of aliens who look like us, act like us and can breed with us. I'm not averse to the idea of an ancient alien civilization, or cross-fertile aliens or aliens that look like humans. It's just that the idea of Mars gets in the way. It seems so anachronistic. Certainly not a dealbreaker on its own, but it takes me out of the story every time it's referenced.

Gallinger is a jerk who is right all the time
One of the observations made about Zelazny is that his characters tend to be cast from a similar mold, that of the wise-cracking, literate superman, a Corwin by any other name (and I wish I had thought of that phrase five years ago when I was naming this blog!)  Gallinger is cut from a different cloth, smug and unpleasant in a way that Corwin and Sam and Nameless never are.

"You are undoubtably the most antagonistic bastard I've ever had to work with!" he bellowed, like a belly-stung buffalo. "Why the hell don't you act like a human being sometime and surprise everybody? I'm willing to admit you're smart, maybe even a genius, but--oh, hell!" 

That's the reason everyone is jealous--why they hate me. I always come through, and I can come through better than anyone else.
There are certainly such people in the real world, but I just don't enjoy reading about them as protagonists. Nothing wrong with such a choice, and we're shown a context for, and the roots of this behavior. I suppose the reason that I enjoy Charles Render more as a character is that his downfall is more intimately connected to his faults, whereas Gallinger is almost entirely a victim of the weight of his circumstances.

 It was a common complaint against Zelazny that he seldom wrote women. I've said this elsewhere. I think that was a combination of genre (as Amber has some deep roots in noir), the market at the time (twelve-year old boys) and possibly a generational thing.  While having so few women in his stories might raise eyebrows had they been written in 2014, he was no worse than other writers of the time, and better than most. He seldom featured women in his stories, but I felt that that he wrote them as well he wrote his male characters when he did.

Braxa is the exception. She's more a plot point than a character, and a lot of the language used to describe her ("The little redheaded doll", "She dragged me awake by tugging at my pajama
sleeve", "She seemed frightened, like a puppy dog being scolded without knowing what it has done wrong") infantilizes her.

However, I did quite like the Matriarch, and her interactions with Gallinger.


It's clearly not what Zelazny intended, but when Gallinger, who is the whitest savior imaginable, says to a group of indigenous people, "Hey, I've got a solution to your problem! I'm going to come back with a bunch of my buddies, and we're going to impregnate all your women!", it sounds a little troubling.

It's not what he intended, and nothing in any Zelazny's biographies or published works suggests that he was even slightly racist. Every account paints him as a really profoundly decent human being. But the subtext is there.

Love versus Infatuation

Gallinger is devastated by the loss of Braxa, but his feelings for her struck me as more akin to infatuation than a genuine, mature love. She's beautiful and pregnant with his child, but what connection did he have to her beyond that?

However, whatever else I think about the story, the ending line is beautiful and poignant and makes me interpret his actions more charitably than I would otherwise.  ("Blurred Mars hung like a swollen belly above me, until it dissolved, brimmed over, and streamed down my face.") I don't feel much sympathy for him being rejected by Braxa, but I will mourn with him for the life he'll never have with his child.


I think I like it a bit more than I did before, but it's never going to be one of my favorites. For me, Divine Madness is a much better story of love and loss.

I did come away with new appreciation for the language in the story, which is simply beautiful, wonderfully poetic, and distinctly Zelazny. Let's end on that note.

  • The entire month's anticipation tried hard to crowd itself into the moment, but could not quite make it.
  • The sky was an unclouded pool of turquoise that rippled calligraphies whenever I swept my eyes across it.
  • "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.
  • And I came to the land where the sun is a tarnished penny, where the wind is a whip, where two moons play at hot rod games, and a hell of sand gives you incendiary itches whenever you look at it.
  • The days were like Shelley's leaves: yellow, red, brown, whipped in bright gusts by the west wind.
  •  One day long before Shiaparelli saw the canals, mythical as my dragon, before those "canals" had given rise to some correct guesses for all the wrong reasons, had Braxa been alive, dancing, here--damned in the womb since blind Milton had written of another paradise, equally lost?
  •   "There has never been a flower on Mars," she said, "but we will learn to grow them."


  1. I had the unfortunate circumstance of hearing about how good "Rose" was before I ever read it. As such, I've never been sure if I like the story because it's good, or if I like the story because I feel as though I'm supposed to.

    In any case, same result: I like the story.

    However, I had a similar issue with LORD OF LIGHT: I'd read about how amazing it was before I ever read the book, so I couldn't figure out if that's why I liked it so much. But when I read it again a year or two later, I realized that, yes: the book is just phenomenal, and not because of any preconceived notions I had about it.

    The reverse of this is true for "The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth," which might be my favorite sub-novel-length Zelazny story. I'd never heard of that one before I read it, and I though it was FANTASTIC. Then, when I did some research and found it was one of Zelazny's more popular stories, it seemed to reinforce my opinion on the matter.

    As far as *my* version of "popular Zelazny story that I never really got into" goes, I'd have to go with Dilvish. I'm not sure why, exactly, but his stories didn't much appeal to me.

    Still, that being said, a few weeks ago I read "Passage to Dilfar" on a whim, and found I liked it much more than previously. So I may end up going through all the Dilvish tales sometime in the near future.

    And, to close on a comment that's actually somewhat related to your post, I'll say this: it's okay not to like "Rose," Josh. Especially when you're willing to analyze your opinion in an interesting manner!

  2. Gave my reply its own post:

  3. What made the story for me was that protagonist never believed his own crap. And, well, the beautiful language. I think he was pretty much supposed to be a selfish, blind, if talented asshole. It is also a good thing that for once Zelazny's protagonist is not a clone of others (much as I enjoy the "type")

    1. I did like that element too, but it was something I thought was handled better in LORD OF LIGHT.

      Not that I felt that this element was something handled poorly in ROSE. I just thought that LOL did it a bit better. Then again, my perception of how it was handled could have been influenced by my affection for LOL.