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How David Bowie Helped Shape Science Fiction as We Know It

From “Space Oddity” to “Lazarus,” Bowie gave voice to the anxiety of science fiction

David Bowie performs as Ziggy Stardust (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

From the very beginning of his career, David Bowie wore his affinity for space on his sleeve. Whether he was singing as the space-traveler Major Tom in his first hit, 1969's “Space Oddity,” or returning to his iconic role as an alien stranded on Earth for his final album in 2016, Blackstar, Bowie’s frequent dives into the mind-bending and uncanny realms of science fiction not only shaped his own career, but helped influence science fiction as we know it today.

The rock icon, who died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday, showed through his work that science fiction wasn't just about grand space operas and starships blasting lasers at each other above planets light-years from Earth. Instead, Bowie illuminated how it could also be used to deliver striking commentaries on our own world, using the uncanny and the odd to shed light on the anxieties that come with being human. It’s hard to miss this branch of sci-fi at work in Bowie’s 1972 opus, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The album, Bowie’s big break into the top pop charts, provided the world with classic songs like “Moonage Daydream,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Starman.” But as a whole, the album is also one of the most aggressively weird and unsettling sci-fi stories ever written, as Brian Merchant wrote for Motherboard.

“[Ziggy Stardust] was half out of sky-fi rock and half out of the Japanese theater,” Bowie told music executive Joe Smith in 1988. “The clothes were at that time simply outrageous...nobody had seen anything like that before.”

In the album, Bowie plays a bisexual Martian rock star, named Ziggy Stardust, who tries to bring a message of hope to a devastated, resource-depleted Earth. If you listen to the story Bowie tells in the album, it gets pretty bonkers: as Bowie told William S. Burroughs for Rolling Stone in 1974, the mythology of Ziggy Stardust features aliens that travel through black holes, along with other references to space prophets and beings made of antimatter.

On the surface, these elements might seem right at home alongside Luke Skywalker’s adventures through the galaxy, but Bowie infuses the complex story with pathos, presenting an alien messiah plagued with confusion and discomfort, who Bowie ultimately destroys at the album’s climax. As Merchant commented: “There is precisely no modern analog: It'd be like Kanye West writing a concept album about dark matter, alien life below Antarctic lakes, string theory, and global warming today.”

Ziggy Stardust was far from Bowie’s last venture into science fiction. In 1976, Bowie played the titular alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, where movie critics praised his performance as a spaceman doing his best to pass for human. Forty years later, Bowie returned to that disquieting role for Blackstar, which was released on his birthday. He planned it as a parting gift for his fans as the singer was dying from cancer, Hannah Furness reports for the Telegraph.

But Bowie didn’t just make science fiction; he inspired it. In the Sandman comic book series, writer Neil Gaiman specifically based the character of Lucifer on the singer, while Batman scribe Grant Morrison later admitted to basing his version of the Joker on Bowie’s '80s persona. Recently, the television series The Venture Brothers cast the leader of a massive super-organization of super-villains as a shapeshifter so inspired by Bowie that he took on the singer’s appearance, Bridget McGovern writes for Tor.com.

Bowie not only left his mark on the world of art and music, he helped popularize themes of identity and discomfort in science fiction. Through exploring the fluidity and strangeness of such radical roles as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, which biographer David Buckley dubbed an amoral zombie, Bowie helped introduce his fans to a worldview that confronted the different and uncanny, whether it was far away on Mars or right here on Earth.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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