Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Long read: On Bowie and science fiction

I assure you that I will eventually stop dwelling on the loss of David Bowie.

It probably won't be this week, though.

At the link above, I write briefly about Bowie's relationship with science fiction. The connections are obvious to most anybody. "Space Oddity," "Starman," "Life on Mars," and all the way up to his last, "Blackstar." But an article at Motherboard re-emphasized to me just how ingrained the genre was in him. As Brian Merchant writes, "Bowie lived, breathed, and died science fiction." He was the first true science fiction rock star. Given how much I care about science fiction and devote so much of my blog to it, I felt that this aspect of his life deserved closer examination.

Ziggy Stardust is a fine place to start as a bellwether of its time. The record arrived in the 1970s right after Star Trek and the landmark 2001 and just before my favorite movie unwittingly rendered most popular science fiction epics into action movies in space. I knew that Bowie's Ziggy was a space opera in its own right, a Martian who comes to Earth and becomes a rock star only to self-destruct in rock 'n roll suicide. What isn't readily apparent is how much deeper generic themes soak into each of the tracks of that record. A 1974 issue of Rolling Stone has William Burroughs interviewing David Bowie (Hey-Zeus Marimba, to be a fly on that wall!!) about the rich mythology behind Ziggy:

Burroughs: Could you explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years.

Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There's no electricity to play it. Ziggy's adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, 'cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. 'All the young dudes' is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I've made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage.
...As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill!

Though that tantalizing last line leaves me crying out for what could have been, just take a look at everything else Bowie presented in that summary. A dystopian Earth is on the precipice of the apocalypse, there are alien anti-matter beings, "black hole jumpers," and godlike entities from beyond called "infinities." This goes beyond merely infusing space travel, a subject very much on the public's mind at the time of Space Oddity, into your music. There are so many other facets present whether they were intended or not. You can see hints of Jack Kirby's Eternals and New Gods, von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, and all manner of delicious weirdness from across the superspectrum.

Eventually Bowie got sick of being Ziggy but he by no means abandoned science fiction. He was still enamored with the concept of dystopia, due in part no doubt to one of his favorite books, 1984. He planned to do a musical stage production of it, but sadly he could not get the rights to the text. That did not stop him. Instead, Bowie worked up his own stage environment called "Hunger City" where a totalitarian regime oppressed the proletariat. A roving gang called "The Diamond Dogs" are led by a character named Halloween Jack, drawing heavily upon A Clockwork Orange for inspiration.

Of course there is also The Man Who Fell to Earth. In that film about a Starman who comes to our world but grows corrupt from its vices, Bowie may have rendered the greatest portrayal of an alien in all of fiction. No, there is no Stan Winston make up or any of the other trappings that stereotypes of the genre might suggest. Instead there is an alien in the purest sense of the word. He's not from here. Not one of us. He looks like us but he is better than us, smarter than us, and yet so far removed. He is the ultimate outsider.

Was that not David Bowie himself? Is that not what caused all manner of other outsiders such as myself to gravitate to him? One of my favorite quotes from him is "I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human." Just watching him, listening to him, I can genuinely say that I think he may have achieved that long ago. Starman indeed...

Now we have Blackstar, Bowie's farewell. Only we didn't know it at the time the title track's video was released. I certainly didn't. You might recall that I wrote a cheeky blog post, capriciously comparing the video for "Blackstar" to a cheesy 1980s cartoon of the same name. Little did I know that "black star" is medical slang for a cancer lesion. So when Bowie sings "I'm a blackstar," well...

As I admitted on Facebook, I am mortified. To say that I now feel like a complete idiot for that post would be an understatement. Sure, I didn't know but in the current context, it just comes off as incredibly poor taste. In retrospect, the signs were all over the video. The jewel-encrusted skull of the dead astronaut in the spacesuit as what remains of Major Tom, Bowie himself levitates above a hospital bed, and mutant scarecrows writhe along with girls who have pointed tails. Once more using the discourse of science fiction, Bowie let us know that the end was coming.

Science fiction is the literature of possibilities. Meaning, possibilities both good and bad. The visions keep changing as do the sounds that come with them. I suspect that David Bowie knew this better than anyone. As he said, "Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming." And he always could. Science fiction was a medium through which he could express that fact and then wait for the rest of us to catch up. But when we did it would always be too late.

Like a Time Lord, Bowie would already be on to the next transformation.

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