The Spaceman who Stole the World: A tribute to David Bowie’s impact on science fiction

“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.”  -David Bowie

While it is not a requirement for science fictions writers to be a fan of David Bowie, but in my experience you will find few that are not. His affect on popular culture and popular music are without question, but what he brought to them, over and over again, were science fictions themes, and the idea of thinking beyond the blue orb we live on.

From his first hit single, Space Oddity, he established himself as the “science fiction rock star.” This wasn’t just a surface homage as it would be for others who would try to emulate this persona (Ace Frehley of KISS and Frehley’s Comet comes to mind), but was incorporated deeply into his writing style. Space Oddity is discordant- the principle character, Major Tom, is uncomfortable with his life and its requirements on Earth, but as soon as he is freed to be among the stars- even though it will kill him- he suddenly feels a peace and calm he did not know before. Not only the lyrics of this song, but the muscianship supports this as well. Over and over, hard grinding rifts slowly yield to keyboard performances of of psychedelic cosmos. Sitting in a tin can, he found a new purpose to life- the goal which many science fiction writers also hope to inspire.

Not the last performance of Bowie’s to do this, he would often repeat themes encapsulating science fiction directly or indirectly, in his use of recurring characters. Bowie’s “rock and roll” was one of strange visitors from space, prophets offering a new school of thought or way to live, and larger-than-life heroes destined for failure due to their interactions with a human race too shelters and too terrified to recognize what was offered- a musical Day the Earth stood Still.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is, in its entirety, a post-apocalyptic tale of the end of human civilization by our own hands, as expressed by an alien visitor, who becomes the messenger for the Infinites, a race of pan-dimensional beings. Enough said there.

David Bowie’s works were an emotional blend of joys and failures, a musical experience of the principles of Greek Tragedy told in space ships, aliens, and disassociation from humanity. from his early works as Space Oddity to The Man who Stole the World to his later pieces such as Earthling, this theme pervades. (For me, while I’m Afraid of Americans was an indictment of a war at that time, that track and many others from Earthling could be laid on top of The Day the Earth Stood Still again seamlessly.)

 

Much like the alien visitor that David Bowie had wished he was at times, Bowie was able to unite us in part because he was such an outsider. A gay man in an era where gayness was not yet accepted, lanky and pale in an era where the Western Ideal was neither lankiness nor paleness, quirky and intelligent when the world was trying to homogenize to the lowest common denominators, David Bowie was, in so many ways, not one of us. Rather than accept this as a drawback, he used it as a rallying cry, and united people who at first glance would have had very little in common.

 

Aside from music, David Bowie also brought his iconically eclectic “living scifi” persona to the big screen.  From his vampiric performance in The Hunger, to the dark and psychologically jarring alien role in The Man who Fell to Earth, to the eternally memorable Jareth in Labyrinth, a story which, while fully centered in the “Fantasy” element of the SF/F genre, is a tale of loss and alienation that deals with trans-dimensional travel and temporal anomaly.

Much like Klaatu of The Day the Earth Stood Still, David Bowie was painfully aware that his time on this world was growing short. In the midst of an apparently painful eighteen month battle with cancer, Bowie rose above himself to offer his fans one final labor of love- the album Blackstar, released this past week. Too young to loose it, and too old to choose it, the clock waited patiently for the album’s release. While lacking the central characterization of earlier albums (for reasons now too painfully obvious), it instead offered a sweet release which intoned many former personas, and continued the science fiction themes of four decades earlier turned to a view of a future the album’s author knew he would never see. Daneel Olivaw could no longer hope to be the architect of a new world, but he could at least offer the blueprints of what it should be.
As a lifelong fan of both music and science fiction, I can no more imagine what my life would have been like without David Bowie than I can control the tears at writing this sentence. Major Tom’s circuit is dead, and while there is nothing wrong with this as all stars must eventually fade away, for me there is nothing immediate to replace it.
There are no Infinites who have torn pieces from Ziggy Stardust to make themselves real and present in the world, unless we step forward to use those memories, those pieces of Bowie, to inspire generations who will mistakenly assume the genius was our own.

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