What does the bleakest book of the Bible have in common with the planet Mars?
Quite a lot, it turns out, as Roger Zelazny had the insight to see in this 1963 short story, which has been collected in Volume I of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
Our understanding of life on Mars has swung like a pendulum across the centuries. At its discovery, Mars was thought to be peopled by an advanced but possibly dying race due to what early astronomers mistook for artificially constructed canals crisscrossing its surface.
In the 20th century, we learned that Mars had likely never been home to any intelligent race – it was a dry, dead world.
Now, in the 20th century, we are opening our minds to the possibility that Mars might once have had life – and indeed might have it still, deep underground where increasing amounts of evidence tell us liquid water might still survive.
Landing right in the middle of this debate was Zelazny’s “Rose for Ecclesiastes,” which paints Mars as a dying world where an intelligent but pre-industrial species has resigned themselves to their fate.
To create the culture for his Mars, Zelazny drew on all the desert cultures of Earth. He imbued them with all the bleakness and brutality of the peoples of the Middle Eastern deserts – and also with their power and mystery.
Our protagonist, a linguist assigned to translate the Martian holy books into Earth tongues for posterity, comes from the lush greenness of Earth. He also comes from a strong disdain for prophecy and tradition, having been raised by a hellfire-and-brimstone Christian preacher. He likens the works of Mars’ final prophet to the book of Ecclesiastes from the Earthly Bible, and treats them with about the same respect.
As our cynical linguist gains the Martians’ trust, he learns more than any other Earthling before him has been told about their society and history. And he realizes that the Martians may not be doomed to die after all – but will they embrace new life if it means contradicting the word of their most revered prophet?
Unfortunately this gem is also not yet available for Kindle eReader software – but it can be found for sale online in several “best of” collections.