Bowie Fiction

There was a time during the twentieth century when the position of the greatest science fiction author was officially split into three. The greatest authors were considered to be Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov.

Of the three, the latter two came to an official accord on how to respond to questions of who was the better writer. While sharing a cab ride in New York, Asimov and Clarke drafted The Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue.

This agreement stated that when asked who was best, Clarke was to refer to Asimov as the best science writer, and Asimov was to refer to Clarke as the best science fiction writer. Each was to claim to be second-best in the other’s field.

The only written evidence of this treaty appeared in the dedication of Clarke’s novel Report on Planet Three:

“In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science fiction writer.”

Why am I talking about this? Because it helps to establish my point: that there are many different moving parts of the speculative genre. There are science writers, science fiction writers, science fiction artists, and filmmakers. But there is one mode of science fiction we seem to often overlook: the science fiction poet. The Spectatorial is incredibly cool to have published a selection of speculative poetry in every issue.

The speculative has pervaded every form of storytelling we have to offer, so why don’t we recognize any great science fiction poets the same way we recognize the writers and the filmmakers? In the tradition of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, who should I name the greatest science fiction poet of their time? That’s easy.

David Bowie.

France David Bowie
Image from chartattack.com

Now hang on, don’t shout me down right away. Let me make it clear that, yes, I know Bowie was a musician/songwriter, but hell, isn’t a good lyrical song just a poem with some groove to it? I know there are people who write actual science fiction poems, but hear me out. David Bowie had a long and illustrious career. Not all of his work was science fiction, but so much of it was, and it made for some of the best and most memorable science fiction poetry of his generation.

The obvious and easy place to start is Space Oddity. It’s a famous song: the tragedy of Bowie’s fictional astronaut, Major Tom, who breaks free from earth and becomes lost in the depths of space. This is a character Bowie would revisit throughout his career, writing and expanding upon the story until Major Tom became a permanent fixture of our pop culture. Sure, Space Oddity is a great song, but it also doubles as Bowie’s earliest science fiction poem to pervade our imaginations.

rocktrain.net
Image from rocktrain.net

Next, I want to talk about Bowie’s great concept album, which for the sake of this article I’m going to call an audio-epic poem. It’s a majestic tragedy of a bisexual rock star who becomes the prophet of a race of god-like aliens. This character prepares the world for the coming of the messianic extra-terrestrial beings of infinity, but is tragically deceived: he is consumed by the Starman, so it could take physical form, and the aliens he convinced humanity were coming to save them end up destroying the world instead.

Does all that sound familiar? Because it should. That is the story of what the Rolling Stones Magazine ranked the 35th greatest album of all time, and I would argue one of the greatest epic poems ever written:

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The story begins in the song/poem Five Years, in which the narrator ominously proclaims that there are only five years left until the end of the world. The panicked reaction of the human race is juxtaposed with the narrator’s love interest calmly getting ice cream. Powerful themes of chaos, death, unity, and acceptance run throughout the album, through songs like Moonage Daydream and Lady Stardust. Songs like Starman reveal that perhaps some otherworldly beings might come to save us, but first humanity must prepare to receive them by learning to love rock and roll:

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky,

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds”

highsnobiety
Image from highsnobiety.com

Even the tragic death of Ziggy Stardust in the finale of Rock and Roll Suicide reads like poetry. Ziggy being destroyed by the Starman he worked so hard to bring to earth seems like something we should have seen coming, with Ziggy’s name literally being Stardust.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth,

You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette

The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, and then you forget ohhh you’re a rock’n’ roll suicide”

Really, the tragedy of Ziggy Stardust reads like anything Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein might have written. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a long narrative piece of science fiction poetry about unity and self-destruction. It’s got aliens and world-ending prophecies and cool guitar solos. I’m not sure about you, but that’s good enough for me. If you choose to disagree with my interpretation, that’s also okay.

But for the sake of my argument and my own sanity, let’s just say I’m right. Let’s all congratulate David Bowie for making a hugely accessible collection of science fiction poetry available to the world forever. In the spirit of the Clark-Asimov treaty, and by the power and authority vested in me—meaning that I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation, keep a copy of The City and the Stars under my pillow, and have Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars playing as I type thisI hereby give the title of “best science fiction poet of a generation” to Mr. Bowie.

RIP Starman.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Spec in Song Spotlight: Kyle Morton

typhoon - white lighter
Image from wearetyphoon.bandcamp.com/album/white-lighter

Spec in Song explores the use of the speculative in music, whether it be fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or beyond.

The content of Kyle Morton’s songs is just about as wide-ranging and eclectic as the musical styles he works into them. This makes sense considering that his main band, Typhoon, consists of eleven multi-instrumentalists; their work features acoustic and electric guitars, basses, violins, drums, ukuleles, banjos, and even a horn section. Yet somehow in this mess of moving parts, he manages to craft imaginative and intricate speculative worlds.

Morton is by no means a ‘speculative artist,’ however you might define it. His themes and stories are all grounded in real-world problems such as aging, relationships, and chronic illness—specifically Lyme disease, of which Morton is a sufferer.

However, as he addresses these ideas in his colourful soundscape, the imagery and plot he weaves place him among some of the greatest sci-fi and fantasy writers of our time.

In “100 Years,” from Typhoon’s third studio album, White Lighter, Morton paints a bleak and downright disturbing picture of a post-modern dystopia. After he (or his character) falls asleep under a tree and sleeps for 100 years, he wakes up to find the world changed. “I awoke in the future,” he says, and what a future it is.

Entire cities of old folks’ homes / In every household a hospital bed for everyone / They laid me down and they stripped my clothes / They gave me a shirt that says / ‘I survived my own life.’”

Morton draws a painful link between society’s emphasis on survival over living and his own struggle with mortality. In doing so, he flings the listener into a different world. Yet this world is torn down just as quickly as it is created, giving way to introspection. “I told you / I told you / I have nothing left with which to hold you.”

Morton’s lyrics are an interesting blend of metaphor and hyperbole. Some are realistic, if overstated (like living for 100 years, even in sleep), but are combined with fantastical elements. What comes out of this mix is fantastically deep world-building, spiralling even out of a few short lines.

He continues this world-building on his solo studio album, What Will Destroy You, bringing a post-apocalyptic flavour to tracks such as “Survivalist Fantasy.” This is a song that explores his complicated relationship with intimacy in a sort of ‘last man on Earth’ scenario.

The scene is set by the lines: “The traffic lights are out and all the phones are dead / Don’t answer the door for anyone.” In a world with a zombie apocalypse obsession, these lines strike a cultural chord. At the same time, the lyrics aren’t intrinsically apocalyptic, and can bring to mind real world scenarios of riot and revolution.

Before we lost the power I think the television said / Stay inside your homes wait for help to come / That must have been weeks ago / Now I’ve got this sinking feeling / You and I are the only ones.”

Again, we see world-building that takes familiar themes and alienates them so that they make more sense surrounded by the fantastical. Who hasn’t thought, when fighting with a partner or struggling to communicate with a loved one, that the world is coming to an end? Who hasn’t questioned the value of living when there doesn’t seem to be any life in their years?

Morton writes stories that are both close to home and entirely other-worldly, which makes for a complex lyrical experience. Being familiar and yet new, it’s definitely worth a stumble through one of his worlds.

Suggested Tracks:

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski