January 2016 saw the loss of two great figures in the speculative world when David Bowie and Alan Rickman passed away within days of each other. Throughout their careers, both influenced and contributed to science fiction and fantasy in their own ways.
David Bowie’s albums were generally highly conceptual, working with not only music but also stories and characters that he ‘became’ as part of the immersive art experience. Throughout his discography, space travel, extraterrestrials, and the grand, sometimes dystopian, themes common in science fiction have majorly influenced his work.
Space Oddity, a 1969 mega-hit, is about the death of Major Tom, an astronaut persona whose spaceship crashes. Bowie would revisit the Major Tom character in subsequent pieces. Recently the song gained even more fame when in 2013 astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded a cover of it aboard the International Space Station.
Blackstar, the album released just days before Bowie’s death on January 10, is also the name of a type of spacecraft, and the music video for the titular track continues with the themes of astronauts and stranded aliens that have been recurring motifs throughout his career. Bowie is also the only musician to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum, a museum dedicated to popular culture.
Bowie’s career took off at a point when space exploration was a new and exciting reality, making science fiction more relevant than ever. Unlike the grand and feel-good space operas of the time, like the original Star Trek and, a few years later, Star Wars, Bowie’s work was often weird, anxious, and uncomfortable. His The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars follows Ziggy, Bowie’s self-insert persona, a rock star alien attempting to bring a message of peace to an ailing Earth who is eventually consumed in the final number, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. He captured the anxiety that space travel brought to humanity alongside the wonder, in terms less black and white than the good versus evil morality science fiction often offers.
As well as bringing science fiction into his music, Bowie is well-known for his portrayal of Jareth, the goblin king, in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth. A cult classic, the plot follows a girl named Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, who has to make her way through a labyrinth full of fantastical creatures to save her baby brother after he’s kidnapped by the goblins. Labyrinth is a wonderful work of fantasy, brought to life by Jim Henson’s puppets. Bowie’s character is a powerful monarch with powers of illusion and transformation. Labyrinth is remembered to this day as a creepy, beautiful cautionary tale of what happens in fantasy when you get what you wish for.
Alan Rickman, who passed away on January 14, is also remembered for his roles in speculative movies, though he was also a very accomplished stage actor and starred in films ranging in genre from Die Hard to Love Actually.
Rickman provided the voice of Marvin, the paranoid android, in the 2005 film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Rickman gave a great voice to one of the most famous robot characters, the bored and very depressed Marvin. While it was hardly the best or most notable book-to-film adaptation of a science fiction novel, as a media series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most influential, funny, and classic pieces of science fiction. As seen with this series, Adams’ love and use of technology—he was apparently the first European to own a Mac—fed in and out of his science fiction stories.
Rickman also ventured into space in 1999’s Galaxy Quest, a loving parody of Star Trek and other similar popular shows. He played a cast member of Galaxy Quest, a fictional television series about space travel. When aliens mistake the show for reality, they reach out to the cast for help.
Of course, Rickman’s most prominent speculative role, if not role in general, was as Severus Snape, the great villain-hero of Harry Potter. He played the character to great acclaim among both critics and fans, shaping Snape from the cold, unlikable bully he starts off as to the complex, tormented double-agent who sacrifices everything in the final installment. Bringing the character from harsh and cruel to a sympathetic hero over Snape’s whole character arc, Rickman brought real life and depth to one of the series’ most beloved characters.
Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling described him as “a magnificent actor and a wonderful man,” and Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the films, said, “I feel so lucky to have worked and spent time with such a special man and actor.”
-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege