June 5, 2018
“The book I was born to write”: Why David Bowie and sci-fi belong together
by Jason Heller
When David Bowie died suddenly on January 10, 2016, so did a part of me.
That day, I had already spent forty-eight hours pondering Blackstar, Bowie’s final album, which had come out on the 8th amid a cloud of awe. While his latter-day career to date had been respectable and at times inspired, Blackstar was a sprawling, ambitious album that harked back to Bowie’s greatest triumphs of the past while signaling a renewed sense of purpose for the future. Or so it seemed. As it turned out, we all misread Bowie’s intention. He made Blackstar while running against the clock, having been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer — which he kept secret until his death. It wasn’t a comeback, but a goodbye.
I took it hard. A fixture in my life who appeared alien, supernatural, and immortal had proven he was only human after all. Like millions, I loved Bowie. His music, his innovative spirit, his fashion sense, his sexiness. But I’d been especially immersed in my lifelong idol at the time of his death — I was writing a book about him.
Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, like most books, had a long and strange gestation. I began working on a proposal for it in 2015, after I’d sent a proposal to the popular 33⅓ book series — small, standalone volumes that focus on the creation and impact of one particular album at a time. I’d proposed Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
My pitch to 33⅓ was that I would focus on the elements of science fiction that fueled and infused the album — ones that Bowie treasured, from the groundbreaking sci-fi novels of Robert A. Heinlein to the radical sci-fi films of Stanley Kubrick. But I also wanted to place Ziggy Stardust in the context of the sci-fi canon as a whole, something I felt the music community and the sci-fi community hadn’t ever fully done. Sci-fi was the province of books, films, and TV, went the common understanding; sci-fi albums were outliers or novelties, not to be considered serious sci-fi storytelling.
That pitch to 33⅓ was rejected. No big deal; for a full-time writer, that’s just part of the process. But this one rankled me more than usual — partly because Bowie meant so much to me personally, and partly because science fiction did as well. I grew up poor, and I found both escape and hope in imaginative music like Bowie’s, as well as in the otherworldly ideas of sci-fi. But as someone with deep roots in the science fiction community, I was just bothered by the fact that sci-fi music has been largely dismissed by my own people. As people should do with any rejection, I turned mine into determination. If I couldn’t get a small book published about Ziggy Stardust’s place in the sci-fi canon, well, then I’d get a large book published about pop music’s place in the sci-fi canon.
Months later, my proposal for Strange Stars eventually made its way to Ryan Harrington, an editor who was just about to make a transition to Melville House. He and I were in the process of restructuring my outline—which included other musicians who embodied science fiction in the ’70s, from Parliament and Rush to Kraftwerk and Devo—when the news of Bowie’s death came from out of the blue.
I was devastated. In a grief-stricken haze, I rallied myself to write a long essay for Pitchfork about Bowie’s relationship with science fiction. What had previously felt like a preoccupation now became a mission. I needed to let the world know, in whatever modest way I could, that music—most notably Bowie’s—was worthy of being considered an essential component of the grand circuit board that is science fiction. Whether it succeeds in that regard is up to others, but at the risk of sounding totally cheesy, I feel like I’ve written the book I was born to write, and the one that will always be the most special to me. If Blackstar is Bowie’s eulogy for Bowie, Strange Stars is mine.
Jason Heller has written for publications including the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and The AV Club. His books include Taft 2012, Slappy’s Revenge, and, most recently, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, out now from Melville House.