“A greeny-yallery,/Grosvenor Gallery, /foot-in-the-grave young man”

I’m guessing maybe half of the readers here will recognize the quote, and if put to the average modern Hugo voters, that would drop to 0.1%, which is faintly amusing as the satire’s subject remains evergreen, and very much about them.

Of course, if you’d asked the same question back in 1885… I’d guess even people who couldn’t read, knew it, and knew what ‘Grosvenor Gallery’ implied (The pile of rubbish aka ‘art’ that the cleaner accidentally destroyed would have once been the epitome of the display there, in modern terms. It was a venue for ‘Art’ which was outside of the mainstream or classical. These days that IS mainstream art). It is a quote from a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta, (Patience) and they were enormously popular. I still feel Gilbert was a genius, but then I like clever lyrics.

The point I am trying to make however is while Gilbert’s skewering of the fads that made the Aesthetic movement, and many of the references are not familiar ones to today’s audiences, the technique he used is core to a lot of sf/fantasy humor. It was a new thing, back then.

It was termed the ‘topsy-turvy’ where, within the bounds of a setting of the story, an element of the ridiculous or absurd was introduced (in our terms, say a shipwrecked Alien in normal modern society).  The story then plays out with the characters taking the situation created by this absurd element to a logical conclusion. The characters in themselves play it as if this were just ordinary reality –as if the absurdity of it never occurred to them.  The surreal bits gently blend into the real, and the audience while amused, accepts the implausible (but logical) for the same of the story. Often it turned into fairly pointed satire, which, while shown to be ridiculous, by the absurd bits, none-the-skewered its targets often by pointing out how ridiculous they actually were

I could be writing about a lot of sf/fantasy, particularly the funnier stories. Eric Frank Russell was a master at it.

It is worth looking at Gilbert’s writing skills (I doubt if his gift for meter, or skill with rhyme are big help in modern sf/fantasy, but you never know.

His settings were (even if moderately ridiculous) always remarkably well constructed and logical to the point that the audience was prepared to suspend disbelief.

They were played with absolute earnestness, as if the characters were unaware of the ridiculous.

He always added to this framework of ‘normality’ the absurd element/s. The characters –while often caricatures – still had elements of reality about them.  And even the ridiculous elements had some degree of mere exaggerated plausibility to them. And this in a way was why his satire was so devastatingly pointed and funny. Take the ‘very model of a Modern Major-General’ from Pirates of Penzance

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem, I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.

Or The First Lord’s (of the Admirality) song from HMS Pinafore

Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip

That they took me into the partnership

And that junior partnership I ween

Was the only ship that I ever had seen

Was the only ship that he ever had seen

But that kind of ship so suited me

That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy

But that kind of ship so suited he

That now he is the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy

I grew so rich that I was sent

By a pocket borough into Parliament

I always voted at my party’s call

And I never thought of thinking for myself at all

No, he never thought of thinking for himself at all

I thought so little, they rewarded me

By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy

He thought so little, they rewarded he

By making him the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy

Now, landsmen all, whoever you may be

If you want to rise to the top of the tree

If your soul isn’t fettered to an office stool

Be careful to be guided by this golden rule

Be careful to be guided by this golden rule

Stick close to your desks and never go to sea

And you all may be Rulers of the Queen’s Navy

Stick close to your desks and never go to sea

And you all may be Rulers of the Queen’s Navy

Gilbert was very determined NOT to follow fads and fashions (the inverse of most modern sf).

Finally, Gilbert resolved his stories, and always did so in a fashion that was inevitably kind (one is reminded of Sir Terry Pratchett in this.) It does seem to have endured.

Image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay


  1. And to make it especially rich, the actual Ruler of the Queen’s Navy actually protested in public, demanding changes. Which only spread the story farther. . .

    1. So the Streisand Effect is nothing new. Interesting factibble (I recently learned that “factoid” has “false” in its definition; so I needed a new word).

  2. The other factor was that Gilbert and Sullivan weren’t actually making up the absurdity of opera settings.

    If you went into a grand opera cold, without knowledge of the play or book it was based upon, the goals and motivations of the characters would seem really weird. Some of them did take place in fairy tale countries or in the opera equivalent of the Bohemian seacoast. A lot of them included foundlings, mistaken identities, etc. (And we can blame those on Greek novels from Alexandria, btw.)

    So G&S exploited what was already there.

  3. I used those closings lines from the Lord Admiral’s Song to describe an inveterate bootlicker and ladder climber, to several co-workers. When asked “what’s that?” by the only Liberal Arts Major present, just had to note that “it was the result of a fine technical education”. The two physicists and two other engineers who’d listened to or read the source did their best to keep straight faces. We’d all heard about the Benefits of Liberal Arts perhaps five times too many.

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