The Rose (1969) Book Review and Analysis
By Charles L. Harness
This book is apparently a “legendary sci fi classic”, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Charles died in mid-2000s and won a few awards for his work. His novel Redworld is apparently all alien characters so I’ll try to find that some time to read and review! I got this novel from a used book sale for 50 cents!
This is less of a story than a place for the author to go on about his own theories - kind of like Atlas Shrugged but 100 pages instead of like 600 (and with only one small rant).
As for the story, A woman, Anna, a psychiatrist and ballerina, has developed a hump and two protrusions on her head, as well as being plagued by a lack of the climactic score for her opera based on "The Rose and the Nightingale". In this story, a nightingale is searching for a red rose amidst a field of only white, only to create a red rose by being pierced by a thorn and bleeding all over it.
Her friend insists she go and meet with a possible patient named Ruy Jacques who is an eccentric artist who has lost the ability to read and write. When she does meet him, she becomes unravelled in a plot by his jealous and brilliant scientist wife to prove that science has more intrinsic worth than art.
For a 100-page novella, there is a lot crammed into this book. A love story, a murder plot, and a plot to build the Ultimate Weapon. It’s clear this novel is not meant to be entertaining so much as “saying something”, but what it’s saying is rather … ridiculous. It is more enjoyable as a bit of archaic 60s “art” than as a story. Kind of like the original Suspiria movie.
It’s an argument about art vs culture (which I’ll get into later in my analysis) which feels forced, as does the dialogue. If the novella were longer, where the characters were given real development, the argument might have felt more organic and interesting than someone’s treatise wrapped in a loose plot.
I’m not sure when this novel is supposed to be set. There are several references to technology/science, and even if these were real tools are from the 60s, they are amusing.
They talk about “autoscanners” which apparently is a precursor to Audible, as it reads stories to you. There’s some type of bug that allows Ruy to eavesdrop on Martha’s office. And there are encephalographs, which are basically x-ray machines that measure the brain in terms of when air replaces some of the cerebrospinal fluid. Apparently this was used as a supplement to other brain examinations. Whether we still do this today, I have no idea. I found a medical abstract from 1933 talking about it, but I got bored after two paragraphs.
The books also claims the “pineal gland is a residuum of the single eye that our very remote sea-going ancestors had in the centre of their fishy foreheads”. This sounded made up to me, but apparently it’s real (according to Wikipedia). Yet, it allowing someone to “see into the future’ were it to be reactivated is very eye-rolling.
The novel also references the old myth that dinosaurs had two brains (one in their tail or back and one in their head).
Basically, a lot of this is just old science that has been disproven or it’s old scientific methods we’ve abandoned for better ones. This book is just a big old pile of old “expired” science.
Is it worth reading? Well, it’s very short and relatively entertaining, but the plot is very thin, the love story is hardly such, and the theories in it are hardly “mind-stretching” today.
I give it what I usually give these books – 2.5/5 Shrieking Purple Dresses.
Analysis - Here be Spoilers!
As usual, I’m going to talk about women in this novel since it’s quite interesting for the time period.
Anna and Martha are both depicted as intelligent, smart women who have goals and agency. They both have jobs and no one suggests that they are incompetent.
The other woman in the novel, the vendress of love-philtres, is a stereotypical crazy old woman, but she has a purpose in the story (she wears multiple purple dresses at the same time, which Anna uses to hide from Martha’s stodges). She’s not denigrated for her looks or lifestyle.
Anna and Martha have some personality – Anna is unsure of herself and nonconfrontational, and Martha is demanding and has confidence (and a temper). Yet, it’s not surprising the calm, graceful, accommodating woman (Anna) is preferred to the shrewish and conniving Martha. Quite frankly, both women are loose tropes – the sacrificial lamb, the witch, and, the seductress. Martha is both witch and seductress and Anna is 100% a sacrificial lamb – we know from the start she’ll be sacrificing herself for love, like the nightingale. If it weren’t so damn obvious it might be interesting, but it’s very unsurprising.
Similarly, there is an exchange between Martha and Anna (page 58) that suggests that Anna’s love for the asshat Ruy (a self-sacrificing, overly accepting love) is preferable to Martha’s desire for respect.
But given Martha is the villain of the story, we’re lead to believe that her argument, like all that Ruy proves false, is wrong. A woman should be like Anna and give herself over to love (there’s no hint that love could be anything but hetero and non-platonic in this story) and forgo her own desires. This is somehow "noble" versus Martha’s desires, which are selfish. Even without the gendered aspects of this, love shouldn’t require a sacrifice.
If the novel were longer and their personalities more defined, this might not have been so egregious, but as it stands they come across as strawwomen for an argument.
There is also a great deal of focus on women’s looks in the novel. The story starts with Anna contemplating her attractiveness in the mirror. Granted, she has been suffering from a hump and protruding glands, so it’s a forgivable way to introduce her, but it would be nice if the story didn’t start with her bodily self-consciousness. And Martha’s hotness is talked about almost as often as her science as if her sexiness is somehow her fault.
We also get this sentence:
"But her continued silence was beginning to disturb and irritate him. He responded to it almost by reflex, refusing to admit to himself his sudden enormous happiness. 'A woman without a tongue! By gods! Her sting is drawn!'"
Fuck off, Ruy.
All attempts to be progressive in this novel regarding gender are overshadowed by this other weird stuff.
Art vs Culture
This is crux of the book. It’s quite heavy-handed. Martha is brilliant and ruthless, but also cold and jealous. Clearly she’s science. Then we have Ruy, a painter, and Anna, a ballerina and composer, who represent art. Ruy is flighty and selfish, while Anna is unsure of herself. Their love (and the intrinsic value of art they represent) cause them to evolve to the next level of homo sapiens, versus science, which is seeking to create a weapon to destroy. While science can be beautiful (as Martha is), in the end, it’s clearly a false beauty, like how a firework is not a real explosion. There are two ways to look at this argument though.
The first is New Historicist – having been published in the 60s, Harness could easily be referencing the nuclear bomb in this story. Everything in the cold war can eventually be linked back to the fears of nuclear devastation. Obviously, if we decide to focus on elevating society through art and love and all that, we’d be better off than building weapons and being “jealous” of one another (aka the arms race). Obviously the pairing of Martha with the National Security guy is showing how governments prefer science over art as well. It’s an easy allegory to make. Also, being the 60s, hippies and all that.
Another approach is Harness' preference for art over science. He makes Ruy embarrass and prove Martha wrong on two occasions. And her instability and desire for control show that science is simply a baser study than art. Ruy and Anna are evolving as humans due to their art, versus Martha who is growing more and more unstable in her quest to design the ultimate science weapon.
Frankly, the entire argument is pointless in my eyes. Martha is always arguing that science is “the highest possible aim of human endeavour, that man’s goal in life is to understand his environment, to analyze it to the last possible iota” and she has this theory called “sciomnia” which is the basis for her weapon designs. Of course, Ruy shows her up at every angle, even when she manages to creature her ultimate weapon and unleash it. Art will always survive, I suppose is the argument? Personally, I think science and art require one another – you can’t paint without smashing up berries to make paint. You can’t sculpt without the science behind pottery or using chisels. It’s a stupid argument.
Yet, at least the novel is attempting to say something different and makes you think a bit. It definitely isn't the pulpy, campy sci-fi space operas I tend to focus on, and I appreciated that about it.
I think this is the best argument from the book is this: “local humanity, whether dominated by art or science, is nothing by temporary surface scum on a primitive backwoods planet.”