Monday, February 7, 2011

A Poet in Space

keywords: allusion, literary tradition, genre, poeticism, characterization

Literary allusion and reference to fairly obscure topics abound in Roger Zelazny's “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” When the story begins, Gallinger is translating madrigals, which are a type of lyric poem or song that was fashionable around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His reply to Morton (“Let not ambition mock thy useful toil”) is a line from an eighteenth-century elegy by Thomas Gray. He compares himself to Hamlet and his boss, Emory, to Claudius a few times. Gallinger says that his publishers expect a “Martian Idyll,” “Saint-Exupery job,” or “Rise and Fall of the Martian Empire.” The idyll is a form a poetry that dates back to Theocritus in the third century BC, Antoine de Saint-Exupery is famous for writing The Little Prince, and the Rise and the Fall of the Martian Empire refers to Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

And all of these references can be found on the first two pages alone. From this point on, the allusions just keep coming: Greece, Rome, Troy, Shakespeare, Ulysses, Dante, and Samson all make appearances, however tangential they may be. This calls to mind what John Rieder says about Darko Suvin’s view of science fiction (from Week 1’s readings). According to Rieder, Suvin includes well-known Romantic poets in his essay in order to give “the study of science fiction academic respectability” (Rieder 17). Suvin even compares science fiction with pastoral, a genre I associate more with Virgil and Spenser and definitely not with any science fiction that I’ve read (Suvin 376).

But I would argue against the idea that Zelazny is trying to make science fiction seem more intellectual and “smart” with all of these allusions. If that were the case, then I would expect the protagonist of the story, an accomplished poet, to be more heroic, or even just likeable. But he isn’t heroic at all—none of the other characters in the story can get along with him. Not even Braxa loves him. One thing that I found interesting was the fact that he does not even come across as that good of a poet—a great linguist, maybe, but not much of a poet. Gallinger is included amongst the likes of Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Stevens, but based solely on his description of a rose on page 75 I would not put him anywhere near that category: “its petals are generally bright red…[it] has a thorny stem, green leaves, and a distinct, pleasant aroma.” (And if Martians do not know what a flower is, does Gallinger really expect them to understand what petals, stems, and leaves are?)

It is somewhat incredible to find a poet as the main character of a science fiction story in the first place. I would expect that if another civilization was discovered on Mars, the first people to be sent over there would be scientists, biologists, and the like. But if it were not for the poet, no one would have ever gained access to the inner Martian circle—only Gallinger is allowed into the Temple. Despite the futuristic sheen of science fiction, there is so much here that is so very old. The high status of the poet reminds me of something like the minstrels and bards that held privileged positions in royal courts, serenading the nobility with songs and ballads. The centrality of Ecclesiastes to the text is also fascinating. After all the time that has gone by, and all the great writers that have come and gone, is Ecclesiastes really the pinnacle of human literary achievement?


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