Ah, Culture

Like many fans I can recite all too many lines from Monty Python sketches or Firesign Theatre albums but am indifferent to memorizing verse or literature. For example, Diana is still waiting for me to memorize the St. Crispin’s speech from Henry V, an ambition I mention to her whenever I see Kenneth Branagh’s movie.

That’s why I am a little surprised to discover I do know by heart a line from Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Dr. Faust” — “From infernal Dis we do ascend to view the subjects of our majesty.”

Now, I’ve never read Marlowe’s “Tragical History.” The reason I know the line is because Tim Powers quoted it in Expiration Date. Ever since I read his novel it has stuck in my memory.

Realizing why I know even a single line of a Marlowe play has set me to thinking how many more examples of art, music and literature I have been introduced to by science fiction writers. 

When Valentine Michael Smith needed a national anthem for Mars, in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, he was prompted to choose the Mars movement of Holst’s Planet Symphony. Reading that piqued my curiosity to listen to the symphony for the first time, and over the years I’ve enjoyed its music again and again. The same Heinlein novel also led me to appreciate the sculpture of Rodin — who can forget Jubal Harshaw’s critique of Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone?

Nor have I forgotten how Harlan Ellison challenged anyone in the audience of his appearance at the 1975 NASFiC to tell him why the dog in A Boy and His Dog was named “Blood.” No, it wasn’t to foreshadow the story’s surprise ending. It’s a reference to a Housman poem: “Clay lies still / but blood’s a rover; / Breath’s a ware that will not keep.”

I wonder if any of you have cherished memories of cultural landmarks discovered in the pages of science fiction?

10 thoughts on “Ah, Culture

  1. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” gave Henry Kuttner the title for “Clash By Night” and was the poetry reading which freaked out Montag’s wife in “Fahrenheit 451”. It also provided the title “(As on a) Darkling Plain” for Ben Bova; Philip Reeve; Ivan Ward & Oliver James; Aidan Higgins & Neil Murphy; plus Gary Tillery (not all necessarily SF). Oh, and The Fugs put much of the final verse to music for their “Tenderness Junction” album.

    A triumph for conflict and doubt.

  2. Not so much. But of the many, many stories I’ve read there’s only one where I’ve remembered a set of lines. From the ending of Lucius Shepard’s “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter”:

    “… from that day forward she lived happily ever after. Except for the dying at the end. And the heartbreak in between.”

    & so it goes.

  3. In addition to Rodin and Ming bowls from _Stranger_, I first sought out the Beatles from the mention in _The Lathe of Heaven_, and Auden from a quote in _Empire Star_. This kind of culture tracking has always been something I’ve done. It all interlocks and is a conversation.

  4. I don’t have my copy of SIASL handy so I can check, but I do remember that it wasn’t Holst’s “Planets” suite that Heinlein referred to as the source of the “Martian Anthem”, but rather a similarly-named suite of some other, fictional, composer. Still, like you, I’m better acquainted with Rodin’s statues because of Jubal Harshaw.

    On the other hand, I’m not familiar with that Marlow quotation, though I do remember several others. And, although I recognized the Housman quote, I didn’t connect it with Ellison.

    I’ll have to do some more thinking on the subject of this entry, because I’m sure that I, like many another fan, have had my (should I say mundane?) cultural horizons widened by SF.

  5. I once won a Valuable Prize on a take-home trivia contest (this was before the web, so the answers were a little more challenging to get) of which I particularly remember one literature-oriented question. It was “Name an SF story whose title is a quote from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.”

    I was sure I knew some, but couldn’t think of them offhand. I’d have to prod my memory. Should I go through my rather vast SF collection looking for Housman quotes among the titles? No, it would make more sense to scan through a copy of A Shropshire Lad – it’s a short book – looking for SF story titles. I was sure one would jump out at me. And it did: “For a breath I tarry.”

    Elsewhere, it was fandom that taught me that “Jabberwocky” may be sung to the tune of “Greensleeves”, and that mental aid is how I found that I had memorized “Jabberwocky”. If Diana challenges me to recite some great poetry from memory on the spot, that’s the one she’s going to get.

  6. Regarding the Mars anthem in Stranger in a Strange Land, you may be remembering Blish’s review, in which he wondered why Heinlein didn’t use Holst’s music. See The Issue at Hand.

  7. Well, I have a musical example that springs to mind: For years I enjoyed Juanita Coulson’s rendition of a song credited as “Pirate Jenny” on a tape of performances from an early filk con. Then one day, I got to watch the 1931 film adaptation of The Threepenny Opera and realized it was a translation of one of the songs from that.

  8. @Earl: Wow. I’m stunned. I really did discover the Holst symphony because of Stranger in a Strange Land — but thinking back, that’s because someone directed me to a copy of the recording when I asked them if the “Nine Planets Symphony” really existed.

    However, anyone who sets out to compare the music Heinlein described with Holst’s “Mars: Bringer of War,” as you just prompted me to do, will discover that the Holst piece doesn’t even call for a tocsin (according to the inventory of instruments listed in a Wikipedia article) which is the signature of the Mars theme in Heinlein’s novel.

    Live and learn!

  9. There are dozens of Star Trek episodes, from the original series all the way through Star Trek: ENTERPRISE which use either Shakespearean or Biblical verses for titles, including “Once More Unto the Breach” (an episode of Deep Space Nine) from Henry V.

    This isn’t a title, but a line from the episode which I like anyway — it reminds me of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence:

    “The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davey Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero’s death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.” — Worf

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