woensdag 10 oktober 2012

The Green Hills of Earth

Let’s talk songs. Let’s talk poems. Let’s talk science fiction. It can’t be all politics all the time, and I like to read and write and discuss all of the aforementioned business.

And why not? After all, it’s not the essays and manifestos that bare our souls. Those reveal our minds, our intellect. For the more romantic inclination, we must often look elsewhere. And where else do we reveal as much of ourselves as in our songs? Not the mass-produced drivel that all too often pollutes the airwaves, but true songs, blessed with meter and rhyme. Our lyrical poems. These are the purest expressions of our mind, more direct and more transcendant than our prose could ever hope to be.

It is with this notion in mind that I direct your attention to the lyrical poem “The Green Hills of Earth”. A song of the future. A song of space travel. A song, above all else, of our own dear Earth. Most people familiar with it will most likely have come across it in a short story of the same name, written by Robert A. Heinlein.

It is the story of Rhysling, “the Blind Singer of the Spaceways”, whom Heinlein presents as the composer of the work in question. At this point I feel that I should tell you that it is not without reason that SFWA’s annual poetry award is called the Rhysling Award, in honour of the character that Heinlein made up to be great bard of his future history.

The story itself is one of the true classics of science fiction; I urge you to read it if you have not already done so. I’ll refrain from discussing the plot here. Go find out for yourself. This post of mine is entirely about the lyrical poem contained within that story, which deserves to be lauded all on its own merits. Heinlein proves to us that he can compose a poem as smoothly as he can spin a compelling yarn.

The origins of the poem are to be found further back, however. Indeed, Heinlein took the idea of a song with the name “The Green Hills of Earth” from an earlier work of science fiction. It is mentioned, in passing, once, in “Shambleau”, the very first story sold by the then twenty-two year old C. L. Moore. The title is just a detail, mentioned in passing in relation to the hard-as-nails smuggler Northwest Smith, during his stay in a frontier town on Mars:

He had no idea what comprised her usual diet, but he bought a can of New York roast beef and one of Venusian frog-broth and a dozen fresh canal-apples and two pounds of that Earth lettuce that grows so vigorously in the fertile canal-soil of Mars. He felt that she must surely find something to her liking in this broad variety of edibles, and — for his day had been very satisfactory — he hummed The Green Hills of Earth to himself in a surprisingly good baritone as he climbed the stairs.

Now, “Shambleau” is in itself an engaging story, but the title of the poem is mentioned once. Somehow it latched itself onto some part of Heinlein’s mind, stayed there for years, and then resurfaced. In his short story about Rhysling the bard, Heinlein provided incomplete lyrics that have stirred something in countless readers ever since. There’s just something about the poem that touches people. Not just the words, but the idea of it.

Interestingly, C. L. Moore also provided fragments of lyrics to her song, in a later work she wrote together with her husband, Henry Kuttner (“Quest of the Starstone”). As far as can be discerned, the couple did this entirely apart from Heinlein’s go at the whole thing. And yet – the lyrics somehow fit together. They evoke each other’s spirit in some strange way.

Since then, the poem has inspired countless filks: songs created by readers of science fiction (in this case attempts to provide complete lyrics to “The Green Hills of Earth”). It could even be argued that the very concept of filk music is in some sense retraceble to Rhysling – and therefore to Heinlein. More precisely: in providing lyrics (and a backstory) for a song that C. L. Moore had dreamed up, Heinlein in fact created one of the first (if not the first) filk songs.

Which brings us to the poem itself. There are obviously various “completed” versions out there. Look for them if you so wish. I can recommend it, as it’s a lot of fun, and without doubt you’ll come across about a million other interesting things along the way. Which is what makes journeys worth the effort, if you ask me.

Anyway – I have always particularly liked the version created by one Chuck Rein. His additional lyrics nicely fill up the blank spaces, expanding on the fragments that Heinlein, Moore and Kuttner have left to the world. Nevertheless, I have my own ideas on the most effective order of the various stanzas. In addtion to that, mr. Rein altered the source material in several places, presumably to suit his own tastes. Which is perfectly fine, because filk artists are, if nothing else, modern-day bards. That means we take the song and make it our own. I’m sure Rhysling would apporove. And Heinlein, for that matter.

Still. I like the source material as it is. So what follows here is my own attempt at completing the poem, in which I have deemed fit to build upon the words and works of Robert A. Heinlein, C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner and Chuck Rein. With my gratitude and most humble admiration, needless to say.


The Green Hills of Earth

Original words by Robert A. Heinlein, C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Additional words by Chuck Rein. Some minor additions and editing by Victor van der Sterren.

The arching sky is calling
Spacemen back to their trade.
All hands! Stand by! Free falling!
And the lights below us fade.

Out ride the sons of Terra,
Far drives the thundering jet,
Up leaps a race of Earthmen,
Out, far, and onward yet —

The stars that shine around us
Are torches on the road
The Black, extending outward,
Is with great peril sowed.

We embark on our adventure —
Return and count the losses worth
To see across the darkness
The cool, green hills of Earth.

We rot in the molds of Venus,
We retch at her tainted breath.
Foul are her flooded jungles,
Crawling with unclean death.

Let the sweet fresh breezes heal me
As they rove around the girth
Of our lovely mother planet
Of the cool, green hills of Earth.

The harsh bright soil of Luna,
Silent and dead as the grave,
Holds not the souls of Earthmen
Whose lives for Earth's they gave.

Across the seas of darkness
The good green Earth is bright —
Oh, Star that was my homeland
Shine down on me tonight.

The rust-red Martian deserts,
Her lonely wandering sands,
Are naught but lifeless visions
To who on her surface stands.

My heart turns home in longing
Across the voids between,
To know beyond the spaceways
The hills of Earth are green.

We, in the frozen nights of Titan,
Dream of Saturn's rainbow rings.
Yet in all our waking hours
It's the Earth alone that sings.

We've tried each spinning space mote
And reckoned its true worth:
Take us back again to the homes of men
On the cool, green hills of Earth.

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth;
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.

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