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

David Bowie and Alan Rickman in the Speculative World

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paolomarzola.com

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