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
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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.
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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”

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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


Dreams are Made in the Trenches

photo by Deb Robertson

In November, it’s hard to forget. Now I don’t mean your keys or your economics quiz; those still slip our minds with regularity. No, as any human being in the Western World who doesn’t currently take up residence under a large rock will tell you, November, at least the beginning of it, is marked by the remembrance of war.

This time of year is one to remember those who fought and those who died so that we might live in a free nation, or as close to it as we can get. This time of year is one to remember the death and pain and huge cost of the many, many wars that have so badly pockmarked our earth and scarred our memories. This time of year is a time to remember, and to be solemn in our remembrance.

But—does that mean we have to be sad?

It’s really hard not to be, when the blood-red poppies we see on the breasts of each passerby remind us of awkwardly staccato recitations of “In Flanders Fields”, which only remind us of crosses row on row and larks above the guns below, which only remind us of the countless images of lurid trenches and wounded men lying feebly on stretchers.

And while it’s very important to be sad about these things, some of these same wounded men would have liked sadness to not be your only emotion at this time of year.

I recently had the good fortune of stumbling upon a book entitled Made in the Trenches, a fitting read for Remembrance Day, one would assume. However, contrary to popular assumption, this book is a comedy.

Written by (primarily) the men of the “Star and Garter” Home for totally disabled soldiers, this anthology of poetry and short stories is anything but what one would expect from such a group of men. Additionally, given the oh-so-comforting words of the preface, “In the aftermath of this grievous war there is no more lamentable and pathetic figure than the soldier who, by reason of his wounds, is paralysed and left utterly helpless”, you can’t help but go into the book with a lump in your throat and a chip on your shoulder.

What these veterans show the reader in the pages post-preface serve to smooth and brush these away, respectively. From the first story—a jolly tale of a hearty, albeit not spectacularly bright, group of soldiers blissfully daydreaming of the home they shall soon return to as bullets fly over their heads—to the last, a theme is obvious: war is hell, but life is not.

Or at least it doesn’t have to be.

There is no real value in actually critiquing such a work; the most I could say is that there is some awkward phrasing and the occasional unnecessary plot point in a few of the stories. No, the true value of this book is in its message, and how it can be applied to our lives, here and now.

By now you may have wondered how this book fits under the umbrella of speculative fiction, and you’re right to wonder. At face value, while the poetry, though sometimes a little crude, can be seen as speculative, the prose is historical fiction through and through. However, the same thing that makes this book so relevant today is also what makes it speculative.

As I’ve already gestured at several times now, this is a funny view of a time that was most decidedly not funny. The idea itself, even on paper, seems absurd, and yet it is this absurdity that makes the point so strong.

In and of itself, the book, its settings, and its content provide a window into a strange and different world—one that many, especially most Westerners, have never experienced, and will hopefully never have to. In all fairness, the world of war is as alien to the average person sitting at their laptop as that of a galaxy far, far away. For one who has never experienced warfare, writing on this topic could almost be seen as speculative itself.

However, this is not the case for the men of the “Star and Garter”. They lived through the horrors of war firsthand, and saw some of their friends and allies die as a result. For them, this was life, no speculation needed.

Where the book’s speculation and modern meaning intersect is in the wonders of the world that these men imagine outside of their place in it. Beyond the battlefield and above the muck of their painful, everyday existences, they were able to see the oft-quoted, seldom-fulfilled silver lining. In a strange and hostile universe where there really was no light over the horizon—at least none that made it through the barbed wire—they made their own.

In each of these stories and poems, whether they be about going home to see loving nurses, finding a long sought-after oasis, or merely the Shakespearian beauty in the twisted environment around, there beats a heart yearning for more than reality. Throughout the tales and odes there is a soul that realizes the value of a lie, if only in that repeating one long enough makes it a hope.

Today, we may not huddle for days on end in endless filth, but we still have our own trenches. We may not plod on with a pack on our back and a rifle in our arms, but we have our own marches. We may not live in perpetual fear of death, but we have our own wars.

There is something that we can definitely learn from these brave individuals who sacrificed so much and gained so little, but it will not only be found in the solemn blare of a trumpet. If Made in the Trenches is any testament, what we should remember this season is that when reality pins you down, it is the dreamers who push back.

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski