Saturday 8 November 2014

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny is most famous for the highly entertaining Princes in Amber fantasy series, but he published a wide range of other novels and shorter stories in a writing career that began while he was still at school in the 1950s and continued up to his death in 1995. A Rose for Ecclesiastes is not just the well-known novella, it is the title of a collection also containing three other long stories: The Furies, The Graveyard Heart and The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth. I bought this book in 1969 and read it a couple of times, but it's four decades since I last opened it.

The Furies (1965). As the back cover says: "three handicapped hunters with more-than-normal powers track down a planet-burning space pirate". Intriguing but not, in my view, in the same elevated league as the others.

The Graveyard Heart (1964). The Set: an exclusive group of famous and immensely wealthy people who spend most of their time in frozen sleep, only waking occasionally to participate in extravagant parties which are broadcast worldwide. One observer becomes infatuated with a member of the set and is determined to join her, but discovers the cost of living such a life as the decades slip by.

The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth (1965 - winner of the 1966 Nebula Award for Best Novelette). A first-person story set on Venus, told by a fisherman who is irresistibly drawn to attempts to capture a great beast of the oceans, a hundred metres long. Every attempt so far has failed despite the fortunes spent on them, but the latest touches the fisherman in a very personal way. Exactly how he is involved is gradually revealed as the story progresses.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes (1963). Mars has been reached – and found to contain Martians, a secretive race which allows little access to Earthmen. They agree to make an exception and invite Gallinger, a linguist and poet, to study their histories. The story of what he discovers and the events that follow is told by Gallinger, and contains one surprise twist after another.

These stories are clearly far more in the fantasy than SF camp, particularly the last two – portraying both Venus and Mars as habitable by unprotected people plus, in the case of Venus, containing huge oceans with massive sea monsters and, on Mars, native Martians who are human. When he wrote these stories it was well known that all of this was impossible but he was not concerned with scientific credibility. Unusually for an SFF writer of the period, what his stories really were about was people: their personalities and how they react in unique and, to us, fantastical circumstances.

What is most striking about Zelazny's writing is that his use of language is beautiful. It comes as no surprise that he also published poetry, as his prose in these stories is often poetic; rather more so than in his later and more popular Amber series. As was indicated by his many award nominations (he won at least sixteen awards, including six Hugos and three Nebulas) he was a writer of rare quality. His approach made a complete contrast to most well-known SF authors of the 1960s who were focused on ideas; the drama and mind-stretching excitement of the unknown. Roger Zelazny's very different style made a unique contribution to the genre.

For me, the one that stands out (in fact, the only one I recalled) is The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth. Reading it again reminded me that this is one of my favourite shorter stories.


Fred said...

My favorites are the last two in the book: "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" which is No. 1 for me and "The Doors..." is No. 2. Thanks for reminding me of them--it's time for a reread.

I lost interest gradually in the Amber series, to be honest. My favorite Zelazny is _Lord of Light_. _This Immortal_ or _Call Me Conrad_ is very good also.

Anthony G Williams said...

With the Amber series, I found that the first five were great, the second five (with a different protagonist) were entirely missable. That also seems to be the general view, judging by some discussions I had recently with other SFF fans.

Fred said...

First five? That seems about right. After that, I think that's about when I lost interest.