The Rose – Charles L Harness (1953)
‘In a world where a terrifying Ultimate Weapon is just about to be perfected, a scattered handful of people are on the brink of making a giant evolutionary step and becoming more than human. The Rose is the story of two such mutants, one man and one woman.
On their foreheads, strange horn-like growths sprout. On their backs, disfiguring humps grow. Together they fight in anew and deadly version of an ages-old battle, all the time seeking the mysterious Rose that will resolve the puzzling enigma on which the future of life itself depends…’
Blurb from the 1969 Panther paperback edition
Weighing in at a scant ninety-nine pages this is a surreal and complex gem of a book. Anna van Tuyl is a psychiatrist recently afflicted with abnormal growths to her head and upper back. Simultaneously she has been plagued with dreams of the score of a ballet called ‘Nightingale and The Rose’ which takes as its theme the story of a Student who desperately needs a Red Rose and can find only white. The nightingale pierces her heart with a thorn in order that her blood dyes the rose red and gives the Student what he needs.
Ruy Jacques, an artist similarly afflicted with the growths, becomes fascinated by Anna’s score. At the same time, Jacques’ wife, Martha, a National Security Scientist, recruits Anna to help her husband, who, it seems, has lost the ability to read and write.
Martha has her own great work in progress, the development of Sciomnia, a set of nineteen formulae whose schematics form the shape of a red rose and which will, when complete, form the basis of the ultimate weapon.
It’s a highly idiosyncratic book, atypical of SF of the fifties, although in some ways it can be compared to the work of Alfred Bester.
It examines the relationship between Science and Art, Science in this case being represented by the cold and ruthless Martha Jacques whose deeply complex feelings for her husband force her to kill those who come between them. It’s an ironic point of the novel that this most insecure of women is a leading figure in National Security.
The forces of Art (a subject on which Harness seems extraordinarily well-versed) are represented by Anna and Ruy, who come to discover that their condition is a natural process and that people like themselves are destined to communicate through Music and Art.
Their evolved pineal glands (their third eye) which has grown to form the rudimentary horns on their foreheads, has given them a certain prescience and the score for the ballet, which Anna has been dreaming and subsequently annotating during her waking hours, turns out to be symbolic of future events.
The dialogue is somewhat dated and stilted in places, but one feels that this only adds to the highly surreal nature of the entire work, packed with grotesque characters such as the people of the carnival where they have all the ‘queer side-shows and one-man exhibitions’.
The book also contains two short pieces; ‘The Chessplayers’ and ‘The New Reality’, the first giving an amusing insight into the psyches of chess-players and the politics of chess clubs, the members of which are lost as to what to do when a professor (who is also an illegal alien) turns up with a chess-playing rat.
‘The New Reality’ is a variation on the Creation myth, in which a Dr Luce (i.e. Lucifer) has constructed a mechanism which can reshape reality. He is thwarted by agent A Prentiss Rodgers and his female boss, ‘E’.
It comes as not much of a surprise that the A in A Prentiss Rodgers stands for Adam and E is Eve. It is a well-constructed and well-written piece however, and superior to most others of the time exploring the same theme.