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"The Green Hills of Earth" is a science fiction short story by American writer Robert A. Heinlein.One of his Future History stories, the short story originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post (February 8, 1947), and it was collected in The Green Hills of Earth (and subsequently in The Past Through Tomorrow). Heinlein selected the story for inclusion in the 1949 anthology My Best Science Fiction Story. "The Green Hills of Earth" is also the title of a song mentioned in several of Heinlein's novels.
It is the story of "Noisy" Rhysling, the blind space-going songwriter whose poetic skills rival Rudyard Kipling's. Heinlein (himself a medically retired U.S. naval officer) spins a yarn about a radiation-blinded spaceship engineer crisscrossing the solar system writing and singing songs. The story takes the form of a nonfiction magazine article.
Heinlein credited the title of the song, "The Green Hills of Earth", to the short story "Shambleau" by C. L. Moore (first published in 1933). In the story Moore's character, a spacefaring smuggler named Northwest Smith, hums the tune of "The Green Hills of Earth." Moore and Henry Kuttner also have Northwest Smith hum the song in their 1937 short story "Quest of the Starstone," which quotes several lines of lyrics.
The events of the story concern the composition of the titular song. An aged Rhysling realizes that his death of old age is near, and hitchhikes on a spaceship headed to Earth so he can die and be buried where he was born. A malfunction threatens the ship with destruction, and Rhysling enters an irradiated area to perform repairs. Upon completing the repairs, he knows that he will soon die of radiation poisoning, and asks that they record his last song; he dies just moments after speaking the final, titular verse.
Heinlein wrote several fragments of lyrics and six full stanzas for the song.
Moore and Kuttner also give fragments of lyrics in "Quest of the Starstone."
The fragments have been filled out and additional stanzas added by the filk community. Some versions combine Heinlein's and Moore's lyrics. The song's meter allows it to be sung to a number of popular tunes, including "Amazing Grace"; "Greensleeves"; "The House of the Rising Sun"; "The Rising of the Moon" / "The Wearing of the Green"; Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" (used in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, fourth movement); "Oh My Darling, Clementine"; "Semper Paratus"; "The Marine Corps Hymn"; "The Yellow Rose of Texas"; "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"; "Ghost Riders in the Sky"; "Acres of Clams", and the theme song from the TV show Gilligan's Island.
The story features several other partial songs and a number of titles attributed to Rhysling. These are:
Several are described as sexually explicit songs excluded from the official edition of Rhysling's works.
Four collections of Rhysling's works are mentioned. They are:
Both the song "The Green Hills of Earth" and the character of Rhysling are mentioned in the novel Time Enough for Love. At an early point in the novel, Lazarus Long bemoans the fact that he cannot "pray for one last landing" because the "Green Hills of Earth" have deteriorated and the planet is uninhabitable. Later, Lazarus tells the story of a blind accordion player who temporarily takes residence in a bordello that he owned on Mars almost two thousand years ago. Although Heinlein readers can easily recognize the character, Lazarus himself does not "recall his right name, if he had one."
The song "The Green Hills of Earth" is referenced three times in Farmer in the Sky as a piece that Bill Lermer plays on his own accordion. Later in that same novel, Lermer is trying to identify a quote ("I have lived and worked with men") and guesses that it was written by Rhysling or Kipling.
Joe-Jim Gregory, the two-headed mutant in Universe, are both fond of "Rhysling, the blind singer of the spaceways". This reference to the character appeared six years before Heinlein actually published "The Green Hills of Earth".
"Since the Pusher Met My Cousin" and "That Red-Headed Venusburg Gal" are both referred to, but no lyrics are provided, in Heinlein's "Logic of Empire".
The story was adapted for the Dimension X radio series (episode 10). It also appeared on the July 7, 1955, broadcast of the NBC Radio Network program X Minus One. Both versions are told from the point of view of a friend of Rhysling's, and have Rhysling using a guitar instead of an accordion. As well as part of the title song (including the origin of a stanza about Venus) using the tune "Rosin the Bow", two verses of "The Captain is a Father to His Crew" are sung, plus choral verses of "Jet Song", and a complete and particularly beautiful version of "The Grand Canal". The songs were composed and sung by Tom Glazer in a manner akin to Woody Guthrie; Kenneth Williams played Rhysling as a backwoodsman from the Ozarks, an area not far from Heinlein's Missouri birthplace. The broadcast is available on the Old-Time Radio Classical Favorites release in the Smithsonian Institution's Radio Spirits series.
Another adaptation aired on the CBS Radio Workshop on July 21, 1957. The script was by Draper Lewis and Robert Heinlein, produced and directed by Dee Engelbach, with music by Clark Harrington. Everett Sloane played Rhysling, Berry Kroeger narrated, and other cast members included Jackson Beck, Danny Ocko, Ian Martin, Louis Volkman, and Bill Lipton.
The song "The Green Hills of Earth" which appears in the story was also used in the 11th episode of the third series of the British radio series, Journey into Space.
The 1951–1952 television series Out There (episode aired December 2, 1951) had a loosely adapted version of the story (Rhysling is on a mission to the asteroids with a crew which includes a beautiful blonde biologist) which starred singer John Raitt.
In 1977, actor Leonard Nimoy recorded a dramatic reading of the story as the title track of an album for Caedmon Records. Nimoy narrated the song lyric excerpts as originally written by Heinlein without singing them.
In his book Learning the World, Ken MacLeod pays homage to this song: Chapter 17 ("Fire in the Sky") ends with a scene where a spacecraft evades an attack. The chapter ends with the background intercom blaring:
Anthony Boucher, who was a close friend of Heinlein's in the 1930s in Los Angeles, in his short story "Man's Reach" makes reference to Rhysling's "Jet Song", stating, "The familiar words boomed forth with that loving vigor of all baritones who have never seen deep space":
In Randall Garrett's short story The Man who hated Mars, the song plays in the Recreation Building of the penal colony on Mars, reminding all of what they've left.
Isaac Asimov recalled in 1969 "I'll never forget the shock that rumbled through the entire world of science fiction fandom when ... Heinlein broke the 'slicks' barrier by having an undiluted science fiction story of his published in The Saturday Evening Post".
Heinlein revealed in the liner notes to the Leonard Nimoy album The Green Hills of Earth that he partially based Rhysling's unique abilities on a blind machinist he worked with at the Philadelphia Naval Yards during World War II. He never identified him beyond the name "Tony." Heinlein was amazed that Tony had a perfect safety record and a production record equal to sighted machinists, and could identify all his co-workers solely on the sound of their footsteps and other aural clues, without need of them speaking to him first. Tony also occasionally played the accordion and sang for the assembled shop. William H. Patterson, in his Heinlein biography Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 1 - Learning Curve (1907-1948), identified the blind machinist as Tony Damico.
References to Rhysling and "the green hills of Earth" were made by Apollo 15 astronauts. They named a crater near their landing site "Rhysling." This name has since been adopted officially. Capcom Joe Allen on Earth summoned David Scott and Jim Irwin, as their third moonwalk was ending, with the words "As the space poet Rhysling would say, we're ready for you to 'come back again to the homes of men on the cool green hills of Earth.'"
Nor can we quote them in a family magazine.