The Rose by Charles L. Harness
Berkley Medallion Books, 1969
(Originally published in Authentic SF, 1953)
Price I paid: none
The year 1953 is a hallowed one to such connoisseurs of science fiction as Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, Brian W. Aldiss, Judith Merril and Damon Knight. It was in that year that a novel called THE ROSE appeared in the British magazine, Authentic SF. It was only the second novel by the American Charles Harness, but he was already a highly regarded writer by those in the know. It was also, unfortunately, his last, until his recent resumption of writing and the publication of a long-awaited new novel, THE RING OF RITORNEL. (Available as a Berkley paperback, X1630)
THE ROSE depicts an ultimate confrontation between science and art, brilliantly and wittily played out between three unforgettable leading characters:
Anna van Tuyl—a composer and also a practicing psychiatrist
Ruy Jacques—Anna’s lover
Martha—Ruy’s wife, who is perfecting a deadly weapon that will render science supreme over art
Here, at last, is a U.S. edition of this superb SF novel, an exciting event for all admirers of little-known science fiction gems.
Well, this is interesting.
I picked up this book because it claimed to be “an exciting event for all admirers of little-known science fiction gems.” You probably just read that and I didn’t need to repeat it. Anyway, seeing as how my obituary might someday read
Thomas Anderson, an admirer of little-known science fiction gems, exploded on the bus today after eating three bowls of chili. Memorial services will be held on the moon.
I figured that this was the kind of book that was right up my alley. And yes, it was. Wow, this book was just…something else. Something special. I feel like I can’t even begin to describe it, but I’ve taken on the self-appointed job of describing things, so I better get my ass in gear.
The crazy thing about this book, though, is that it wasn’t a book at all. Or, more accurately, it wasn’t a novel. This was surprising to me, considering that the back of the book kept calling it one. Plus there’s the fact that this volume was entitled The Rose and the back of the book only described the plot of that one bit, but no, there was more to this book than that. Also less.
I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. All of the references to The Rose that I’ve been able to find, including the prologue to this volume written by Michael Moorcock, call it a novella. It was originally published as a novella in British magazine Authentic SF. What I assumed from reading that was that the original work was a novella and that our author had fleshed out the story until it was something that could be considered a novel, which was then published. This is, in my experience, the usual way of things.
But no, that’s not what happened here. What I got was a paperback book that totaled 141 pages, but whose advertised story comprised about eighty of those pages. The rest of the book was assorted short stories. Nowhere did the book say that this would be the case. It never hinted at it. I feel a little bit scammed.
I don’t mind novellas. I think they’re fine. But if I’m going to buy one, I want to know it. Now, I paid nothing for this book because somebody gave it to me, but in the end I feel like they got scammed. Everything this book had to say about itself was that it was a 141 page novel called The Rose and that it was about the conflict between science and art. What it did not say was that just as I thought I was getting to the middle bit and wondering how all of this was going to resolve, it would end and start a story called “The Chessplayers” that took me several paragraphs to realize it was completely unconnected from whatever else I was just reading apart from the fact that it was also by Charles Harness.
While a bit annoyed, there was also that sense of relief that comes from realizing you’d got an unexpected day off from work. I thought I was only halfway done, but it turned out I’d finished this read and could slack off a bit earlier than usual. I say this with mixed feelings, since I was genuinely enjoying the story, but human nature is what it is and any work, no matter how enjoyable, is just better when it’s done earlier than expected.
The Rose stands out, to me, as something way ahead of its time. As I was reading it, I kept thinking how staunchly it fit into the New Wave science fiction of later days. In fact, it was very easy to forget that this story was written in the fifties. If I hadn’t known at all what was going on, I would have said this story was probably written somewhere around 1972. I don’t know why I’d pick that particular year. Call it some kind of intuition. But no, this is a product of the fifties, little as it may seem so.
It does make it obvious why the story has been praised by so many of the New Wave authors, from Moorcock to Merril to Aldiss. It’s easy to imagine any of them opening this story when it was originally published and thinking this is exactly what I want to write.
As a proto-New Wave book, it can be a little hard to tell what’s going on. The standard rules of storytelling are out the window, although this book was more straightforward than the works it spawned.
There are basically three characters in this book. Anna is a psychiatrist who is also writing a ballet called The Nightingale and the Rose, based on the tale by Oscar Wilde. The ballet is mostly finished except for the death song, which Anna considers to be the most important part. A colleague of hers introduces her to Ruy, an eccentric and wealthy man who might be able to help out.
Both Anna and Ruy are described as ugly. They have severe deformities, including a humped back and protuberances from their heads that look rather a lot like horns. The fact that their deformities are so similar is remarked upon, but not really explored until much later, although one gets the feeling that everybody is aware that something is up. Anna is also working as Ruy’s psychiatrist, trying to figure out just why he’s so lazy and eccentric.
Ruy’s wife, Martha, is beautiful. It’s stated that she doesn’t really love her husband. In fact, the reason she’s so jealous of him being with any other woman, particularly Anna, is that she hates him so much that she keeps him trapped in marriage so that he can’t ever be happy with anybody else. Martha doesn’t come off all that well in this story. I guess she’s the villain, but she’s also a caricature. I was reminded of that Twilight Zone episode where Burgess Meredith just wants to read something and his shrew wife marks out all the pages.
Martha isn’t a caricature of women or anything, but rather of scientists. Her entire life is devoted to science, and she’s on the cusp of discovering Sciomnia, the ultimate scientific principle that will unify all disciplines. Whoever discovers it will bring mankind almost unlimited abilities and power. It’s apparently a series of nineteen equations.
A lot of this story consists of arguments between Ruy and Martha about art versus science. Ruy insists that every scientific principle was discovered by artists first, only to be codified by the scientists later. Martha argues that this is not the case, and that art is a waste of time. One of the big examples of their arguments, one that almost sends Martha over the edge, is when Ruy presents her with a list of equations detailing why stars twinkle. She looks them over with contempt, saying that these are all old news. Ruy then runs them through some kind of computo-musical device, which then plays “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which he snarkily says predates all of those equations.
I have to say, I don’t find myself convinced by this argument. I also find it odd that the entire plot of this book seems to hinge on a rivalry that I was unaware of. As much as I liked reading this, I feel like Harness was relying on some kind of version of scientists that I have just never met. Sure, I bet there are plenty of them that think that art and music and poetry are wastes of time, but every scientist I’ve ever met has also had a healthy appreciation for the humanities. I’ve met a lot more scientifically-minded people who also enjoy Bach or Michelangelo or whatever than the other way around. It’s a lot more likely for somebody in the humanities to dismiss science, mostly because they find it hard to understand and appreciate without a lot of work, whereas a poem can be enjoyed on its own merits without a lot of training. Emotions are universal, the ability to derive equations perhaps a little less so.
It’s revealed that Anna and Ruy are so different because they are homo superior, a word that finds its first use in Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John but is perhaps more recognizable for its use in X-Men comics. The horns, for instance, are apparently extensions of the pineal gland. There’s this bit where somebody says something like, “If you just look through one eye, you don’t perceive depth. Add the other and that new dimension occurs. Add a third eye and logically you can look through time.”
Some trauma occurs and Ruy has to abandon Anna in the street, where she undergoes a mysterious event and then disappears. She shows up some time later, ready to finish her ballet. She has gone from ugly to beautiful in this time. As she’s putting on the ballet, Martha also shows up and threatens to shoot her with something derived from her Sciomnia equations. The death song to the ballet is still unfinished, so Ruy takes those equations and musicifies them and it turns out the be exactly what is needed to fill those 38 blank measures. Martha shoots Anna during the death scene, there’s a bit of talk, and then it’s revealed that Anna actually has wings now, which, as she dies, turn red, kind of like the rose in the ballet and the Oscar Wilde story.
And that’s the end, although at first I didn’t know that and assumed “The Chessmen” was another part of the story.
Still, wow, what a tale! I didn’t do it justice. I know this. I want you to read it yourself. It’s so totally worth it. As a person who is sometimes put off by the New Wave authors, I thought this story was just the tops. Unlike those later writers (who are mostly great, I want to emphasize), this story didn’t come off as pretentious or plotless or anything. It had meat. It also had a point, although one that seemed a bit obscure at times. There’s meaning to be dug out of this story, and that’s great. It’s worth a re-read. Maybe more than one.
As a novella, I also want to praise the fact that this story didn’t waste my time with anything pointless. Although the long arguments between Ruy and Martha could drag on a bit, they were at least interesting to read. And even though I didn’t necessarily agree with anything Ruy was suggesting—that poetry as a form predicts Boyle’s Law or stuff like that—it was still very interesting to explore. One thing that just thrilled me was the fact that the author obviously put a lot of work into studying the things he was talking about. The arguments weren’t vague or silly. There was a lot of actual research done into things like poetic form, musical theory, and so forth. Even the ballet stuff had that sense of somebody who knows what they’re talking about. I don’t know anything about the author, so it could be that he just knew all this stuff anyway and wanted to write a story around it, but it’s my understanding that he was a lawyer, so that seems a little off. I think it’s much more likely that he actually did some research or talked to some artists and scientists before starting this story, or at least ran it by them when he was done.
I’ll probably read the other, unadvertised, stories in this collection, but for the moment, I’m pretty happy just thinking about this one.