Novella Review: “The Rose” by Charles L. Harness

(Cover by John Richards. Authentic, March 1953.)

Who Goes There?

I had encountered Charles L. Harness for the first time only a few months ago, but I had known about him before then. Despite making his genre debut in 1948 and being active off and on until his death in 2005, Harness was not a very prolific writer and his reputation is pretty near to cult status. While his style and inspirations are no doubt products of the Campbellian Golden Age of the ’40s, Harness quickly showed himself to be a bit quirkier than his fellows, even endearing himself to the New Wave crowd in the ’60s. No doubt Michael Moorcock’s outspoken admiration for Harness, even reprinting a couple of his stories in New Worlds, contributed to Harness’s career getting a second wind in the latter half of the ’60s. Thing is, Harness went on hiatus from the field multiple times, most prominently from 1954 to 1965, and today’s story might be a reason for that break.

The early ’50s saw the biggest boom the SFF magazine market would see for decades, and was by a good margin the busiest period for the field up to that point—yet even in this permissive climate, Harness was unable to sell what he must’ve thought was his magnum opus, “The Rose,” in the US. While “The Rose” is now highly regarded by those who’ve read it, even garnering a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novella, it must’ve been too weird for anyone in American genre publishing at the time, so Harness resorted to submitting it to Authentic Science Fiction, a second-rate British magazine; it would not see American publication until 1969. “The Rose” was and remains one of the few true cult classics of science fiction to have come out of the 1950-1954 boom period, and I think its cult status is well-earned.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the March it doesn’t say March on the cover but ISFDB gives it as March publication and I’m not going by issue numbers unless I have no alternative damnit 1953 issue of Authentic Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. It was first collected in (confusingly titled) The Rose, which was available in the UK for years but had to wait to get an American release. Your two big (literally) print options nowadays are The Science Fiction Century (ed. David G. Hartwell), which is a very useful tome on paper but in practice may kill your wrists. A bit more practical is An Ornament to His Profession, a near-complete collection of Harness’s short fiction from NESFA Press, and I do believe that one is still in print.

Enhancing Image

Harness immediately gains points for making the protagonist of “The Rose” not only a woman but a woman with a disability. We have Anna van Tuyl, a psychogeneticist (a psychiatrist and a geneticist?) and a ballet composer, who also happens to have a couple physical oddities about her: the first is on her forehead, “two tumorous bulges—like incipient horns,” the second is what appears to be a hunchback. I won’t say what it is exactly, but in hindsight I should’ve seen Anna’s abnormal physique as heightened foreshadowing. Given her occupation and her search for grace (as both person and artist), Anna, with her horns and back, could be seen as an angel fallen to Earth, like Lucifer after the Fall. Thankfully Anna is not in constant pain, but as to be expected she does have some self-image issues, with both the narration and the interior illustration at the story’s beginning (courtesy of Fischer) almost making her out to be a witch out of Macbeth.

Anna is both a scientist and an artist, being caught between science and art, a conflict that will guide the rest of the narrative. She’s composing a ballet titled The Nightingale and the Rose, which she’s almost done with but can’t bring herself to finish; in her defense she’s not only composing this ballet but intends to perform it, the only problem being that the Nightingale, a tragic figure, dies at the end to create a magical red rose. The Nightingale and the Student fall in love, but the Nightingale must sacrifice herself to turn a white rose red. I know what you’re thinking: “This is not very subtle.” And you’d be right, but then Harness makes no attempt to hide the parallel between Anna’s soon-to-be-dramatic life and the ballet she’s composing; indeed much of the joy of reading “The Rose” comes from connecting the dots for it as an allegory. Our intuition tells us that somehow Anna’s story won’t end happily for her, but how, why, and when are the questions that we remain eager to see answered. In other words, get your popcorn ready.

“The Rose” can be partly understood as a series of dialogues, and the first big one is between Anna and her friend/colleague Matt Bell, who like Anna is preoccupied with art but unlike her (by his own admission) has no knack for creating it. Anna’s latest assignment is officially an eccentric husband to one Martha Jacques, but unofficially it’s both of them: Ruy and Martha Jacques, two personalities who are diametrically opposed in every way imaginable except for the fact that they’re both egotists, each thinking s/he is the center of the universe. Martha is a scientist who, like Anna, is close to finishing a grand project of her own, going by the name of Sciomnia, a vaguely described invention that is supposed to be an amalgamation of all the known hard sciences. The official subject, Ruy, is an artist and a Bohemian type who has apparently lost the ability to read and write. Ruy and Martha hate each other’s guts, which makes one wonder how they got together in the first place—but then art and science must always be bumping shoulders as well, fighting perpetually and yet often seen in collaboration.

Ruy and Martha Jacques are a personification of what Matt deems an ideological battle for the future of humanity. “So the battle lines converge in Renaissance II. Art versus Science. Who dies? Who lives?” It’s clear that both Anna and Harness believe science is subservient to art—a viewpoint which probably turned off John W. Campbell from buying the story, despite it otherwise being a Campbellian narrative about human evolution. Actually the only other thing I can think of off the top of my head that preceded “The Rose” which can be compared to it is A. E. van Vogt’s Slan, also about a race of supermen destined to overtake “normal” humanity. I’m getting ahead of myself. “The Rose” is headier than anything by van Vogt that I’ve read, which is saying a lot, but it’s also far more openly detatched from the rules of everyday life and normal human behavior.

Consider that Martha is a mega-bitch and Ruy cares for nobody but himself for most of the story, and the fact that somehow these two have not literally killed each other up to this point. Consider also that despite her rationality and her best interests Anna is drawn profoundly to Ruy once they meet, though to be fair to her there are a couple things about Ruy that would make him of great interest to her—namely that he too has the matching bulges on his forehead and a hunchback. The three main players in the narrative (Anna, Ruy, and Martha) all play roles that correspond to their ballet counterparts: Anna is the Nightingale, Ruy is the Student, and Martha is… the thorn, perhaps. Martha is the most one-dimensional of the three and her obsession with vindicating her scientific breakthrough doesn’t snowball into mania so much as call mania its home from the start. Of more interest is Ruy fitting into the role of the Student, taking part in “the dream ballet” that Anna has thought and dreamt so much about but is unable to finish.

It could be that I’m a big fan of Princess Tutu, but I have a real soft spot for ballet as a diving board for allegorical—for characters in the supposed real world to take on the roles of fictional, even fantastical characters, whether they’re aware of it or not. Anna’s own inner conflict has to do with the fact that she sees herself in the role of the Nightingale—and in her ballet, the Nightingale dies at the end; yet it never occurs to her to change the ballet’s ending even if it means somehow altering her own fate. The Nightingale must die at the end. For love of the Student. To create the Red Rose. This is further complicated by Ruy being a rather unlikable fellow (although he’s not totally batshit like his wife), which bothers Anna immensely as well. While I’m pretty sure Harness agrees with Ruy’s side in the battle of ideas here to an extent, Ruy also has moments where his egotism reaches its apex and we get massive overbearing monologues like this one:

“[Science] is simply a parasitical, adjectival, and useless occupation devoted to the quantitative restatement of Art,” finished the smiling Jacques. “Science is functionally sterile; it creates nothing; it says nothing new. The scientist can never be more than a humble camp-follower of the artist. There exists no scientific truism that hasn’t been anticipated by creative art. The examples are endless. Uccello worked out mathematically the laws of perspective in the fifteenth century; but Kallicrates applied the same laws two thousand years before in designing the columns of the Parthenon. The Curies thought they invented the idea of ‘half-life’—of a thing vanishing in proportion to its residue. The Egyptians tuned their lyre-strings to dampen according to the same formula. Napier thought he invented logarithms—entirely overlooking the fact that the Roman brass workers flared their trumpets to follow a logarithmic Curve.”

For the record, I find these often entertaining, but they do also show that even the characters we’re supposed to root for are flawed. Anna sees Ruy as the Student when she meets him, but it takes time and some growing as a person (in his relationship with Anna) for Ruy to become the Student, as the one who is worthy of the Nightingale’s love. Anna makes it clear to everyone that she does not love Ruy, although Martha is not convinced; quite the contrary, despite hating her husband, Martha is at the same determined to see that nobody else can have him, with Anna apparently being the last person on the planet she wants as the one to cuck her. On the one hand this is mania to an extreme that threatens even the physical laws of reality, but it does make a sort of sense if Martha understands on some level that Anna and Ruy are set in playing out their roles.

At this point you might be wondering: “This all sounds a bit odd, but how exactly is it science fiction? Nothing science-fictional has happened yet!” And once again you’d be right. As it turns out, though, Anna and Ruy having the horns and the hunchback are not just there for the sake of being there: these are characteristics of a mutation which will give these characters a lot more than what they would’ve thought possible. We’re not quite there, though. Like I said, Ruy lost the ability to read and write; the written word now looks like total gibberish to him. Anna runs an X-ray on Ruy while the latter is unconscious (for reasons too convoluted to explain here) and she finds something very odd indeed about his head—and by extension hers as well. Guess what, it has to do with the pineal gland.

“Is the pineal absent—or, are the ‘horns’ actually the pineal, enormously enlarged and bifurcated? I’m convinced that the latter is the fact. For reasons presently unknown to me, this heretofore small, obscure lobe has grown, bifurcated, and forced its destructive dual limbs not only through the soft cerebral tissue concerned with the ability to read, but also has gone on to skirt half the cerebral circumference to the forehead, where even the hard frontal bone of the skull has softened under its pressure.” She looked at Bell closely. “I infer that it’s just a question of time before I, too, forget how to read and write.”

Ah yes, the pineal gland, that old chestnut of science fiction; not as popularly used now in SF as it used to be, say, a century ago, but Harness knows what he’s doing when he brings up “the third eye” and how it had been alluded to in religious writings and art. Yep, art anticipating science yet again. That’s not the whole of it, though: the mass of tissue on Ruy’s back is not just a mass of tissue, but housing something much more important—almost like a second brain. (I told you this would get weird.) The horns and hunchback seem to have a connection, and not only that, but they allow for a kind of telepathy, hence how Ruy is able to do certain things without being able to read or write. Again this feels like it could fit into the Campbell mould, but it’s too heightened and anti-science (and really, too literate) to appeal to Campbell. What we have with “The Rose” is a hybrid of pulp SF conventions and a playing with themes that’s more ambitious than most SF being published at the time. I can see why editors were wary of it.

I have to wonder if Harness’s struggle to get “The Rose” published made him wary as well, because as far as I can tell nothing he wrote post-hiatus went as “out there” as this novella, although that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in his post-hiatus work. Harness was a lawyer by day, but he was also an artist; his penchant for name-dropping and references falls in line with what certain New Wave authors would be doing a decade after “The Rose.” It’s appropriate that William Blake gets name-dropped at one point since while he is often considered one of the Romantic (with a capital R) poets, he’s a little too much of a weirdo to fit comfortably alongside John Keats and Lord Byron—never mind that he was a generation older than the other Romantics; incidentally (for we know he could not have intended this) Harness was also a generation older than the New Wave authors he fell in with. “The Rose” lacks the slickness in style that would often define the New Wave, but thematically it very much feels like a precursor—a story about the coming of a new race, itself a distant prototype for a new literary movement.

One last thing…

This is yet another example of why I love the novella mode—for literature generally but especially for science fiction. At (so I’d guess) a good 30,000 words “The Rose” would not make any sense if you cut the word count in half, but the stage it sets is also too small to justify a full novel. We’re given a handful of characters, a few ideas that can only be done in science fiction, a plot that never veers off its main course or gets distracted with sub-plots, and that’s really all we need to enjoy the story and for Harness to make his points. Its length may have contributed to editors not wanting it, but I think the length is more or less justified. Harness is not a poet on a line-by-line level, but his use of symbols and allusions is very much deliberate.

There Be Spoilers Here

You know I think this is special when I use this section to just tell you to read the damn story yourself. I’m not getting into the ending, only saying here that it’s simultaneously baffling and perfectly logical in the context of a narrative that operates on its own rules and nothing else.

A Step Farther Out

It’s not perfect, but “The Rose” is certainly memorable, and it’s amazing to me that Harness had it published unaltered but in far-from-ideal circumstances rather than change it to make it more acceptable to editors in the American market. Harness’s inability to get “The Rose” published in the US must’ve pained him, but ultimately he stayed true to himself and that artistic integrity paid off in the long run. By the time Harness returned to genre writing in 1966 he was no longer the maverick that he was in the early ’50s, but that’s partly because the field had caught up to him; he had been vindicated. It’s maybe too pulpy and overtly allegorical for more “sophisticated” readers and at the same time too sophisticated for diehard pulp readers of the era, but “The Rose” is what most good stories aren’t, which is to say it’s unique and there’s nothing else quite like it.

See you next time.


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