July 20, 1969, as the first man prepared to walk on the
moon, a producer at BBC had the bright idea of playing
David Bowie’s "Space Oddity" during its
broadcast coverage. It was an odd choice, to say the
least. The song is about an astronaut stranded in space,
a fate nobody wished on Neil Armstrong. "Space
Oddity" is among the seminal sci-fi pop songs. But
timing, people. Timing.
story is among the many luminescent episodes chronicled
in Jason Heller’s "Strange Stars: David Bowie,
Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded"
(Melville House, $26.99). Just about any sci-fi theme
you can imagine — interplanetary exploration, time
travel, dystopian futures, utopian futures, good robots,
bad robots — were on the minds and in the songs of
artists famous (Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane,
Parliament-Funkadelic) and obscure (Klaatu, X-Ray Spex,
Heller, "Strange Stars" is a melding of two
passions he has maintained since childhood.
grew up an introverted kid on the Florida Gulf Coast,
moving a lot, changing schools every few months. Then he
saw "Star Wars." His mind was among the many
sent whirling by Luke, Darth Vader and the gang. He also
watched reruns of his grandfather’s favorite show,
he was ambling over to the public library and returning
home with armfuls of classic science fiction, by the
likes of Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray
Bradbury and Frank Herbert. He also found solace in
music, especially when Meco’s disco-driven "Star
Wars Theme/Cantina Band" hit the airwaves in 1977.
pop song? With "Star Wars" music? It might as
well have been a supernova exploding in Heller’s
just reinforced in my mind, even at that time, that
there was a connection," Heller says by phone.
"There was a certain way that people expressed
their love and appreciation and fandom of music and of
science fiction that were kind of similar. The feeling
of alienation and loneliness and the ache of being away
from people, those are some of the universal themes that
a lot of science fiction and science fiction music of
the ’70s were able to tap into, especially as mankind
was starting to hurtle into outer space on a more
frequent and sustained basis."
’70s, as you may have heard, were a strange time. You
could still find traces of the grand idealism of the ’60s,
which led us to put a man on the moon in the first
place. But those traces came with an increasingly bitter
edge of anxiety and paranoia. Fear of overpopulation and
environmental disaster was rampant. So was suspicion of
technology’s rapid explosion. Sci-fi themes were in
the air, and blaring out of amplifiers.
before "Star Wars" hit, brainy pop artists
were consuming sci-fi literature and transferring the
themes and stories into their music. Hawkwind, which
featured future Motorhead frontman Lemmy, collaborated
with the novelist Michael Moorcock (as did Blue Oyster
Cult). Bowie was obsessed with George Orwell’s
"1984" and starred in the film version of
Walter Tevis’ "The Man Who Fell to Earth" in
1976. As early as 1968, Jefferson Airplane’s Paul
Kantner was riffing off John Wyndham’s novel "The
Chrysalids" in the song "Crown of
Creation." A few years later he released one of the
seminal sci-fi rock albums, "Blows Against the
pop expressed its sci-fi bona fides through lyrics
alone. But some managed to sound like the future. Take
Kraftwerk, the German outfit that turned blips, blurps
and loops into a sound that could be described as
post-human. Or Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton’s
elaborate and visually baroque dual enterprise that saw
space as the place to get funky.
and the jazz experimentalist Sun Ra were exemplars of
Afrofuturism, which viewed sci-fi and technology through
the lens of the African diaspora, past and future. For a
more recent, popular example of Afrofuturism, go see
"Black Panther" (again). Or listen to some
Janelle Monáe, the shape-shifting hip-hop/R&B
artist whom Heller identifies as the brightest torch
carrier of sci-fi pop today.
doing the type of thing that David Bowie and George
Clinton did," Heller says. "But I think what
really has elevated her is how she has continued to
shift and not just allow herself to be pigeonholed as
this person who screams about science fiction. She doesn’t
do it in a way that seems evasive, but in a way that
seems tantalizingly ambiguous."
Stars" stops in the early ’80s, which means it
doesn’t get to the heyday of techno and hip-hop.
Surely OutKast, the Atlanta rap duo who reimagined
themselves as ATLiens on their 1996 album of the same
name, has plenty in common with the ’70s sci-fi
a subject to be explored in another book, perhaps to be
published … in the future.