Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review of The Rose by Charles L. Harness

The 1950s in the US was a time when science fiction and fantasy were emerging from their cocoons to spread wings and take purposeful flight.  Though they have never fully escaped this legacy, the decade at least started to put some distance between itself and ray gun wielding heroes, slavering aliens, and damsels in distress by looking at how larger issues might be addressed by genre.  Charles L. Harness’ collection The Rose, anchored by the eponymous novella, is a bold step toward adulthood.

Working with the foundation of Oscar Wilde’s short “The Nightingale and the Rose”, “The Rose” is the story of Anna van Tuyl.  Ballet dancer, psychologist, composer, as well as recent grower of strange bodily protuberances, she seeks help completing her most recent symphony and runs into Ruy Jacques, a man who shares her problems corporeal.  Jacques’ scientist wife is dragged into the mix, and with her come the 19 equations she is working on in order to design the world’s perfect weapon.  Their triangle eventually coming to a line, Harness falls back upon a dramatic/comedic conclusion that satisfies all sides of the art vs. science debate.

In his introduction, Michael Moorcock writes “The Rose” is “never pretentious”.  But the very idea of idea of art vs. science, no matter its presentation, should ring warning bells of ostentation.  Harness’ novella manages to sidestep a lot of the more overt trappings of the ideological juxtaposition, but can never wholly avoid the descriptor.  The prose a carefully constructed artifice, it creates a mood that partially dilutes the pretension, resulting in Harness’ ability to get away with conversations debating the relative merits of art vs. science that would otherwise fall flat.  In the very least resulting in an intrigue at where he will take the juxtaposition, Moorcock’s statement, however, remains unresolved.

There are two other short stories collected in The Rose.  The first is “The Chess Players.”  A little gem of Cold War satire, it looks at the focus and attention chess club members pay to the game, and what happens, or fails to happen, when slapped in the face with a touch of ‘real game’.  The second is “The New Reality”, which is a take on the Genesis myth in modern, scientific (unscientific?) fashion.  Garden of Eden as only classic sf can dream, the story must certainly have been fresh at its time of publishing, as despite the simplicity of its symbolism, overlays the subject matter onto genre with dynamic prose and imagery.

In the end, The Rose is a quick but bright collection featuring three stories that indicate the Golden Age was growing up.  The title story is the foundation of the collection, and has been lauded through the years for its quality style and symbolism.  But I would argue the other two are of similar quality (provided one appreciates good satire and allegory).  Similar to the works of Theodore Sturgeon and Fritz Leiber (if one ignores the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories), Harness may not have gained the same attention, but was at least writing in equal quality on these three occasions.

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