When David Bowie died on Sunday–at the age of 69 and, judging by his recently released final album Blackstar, still at the height of his creative powers–rock ‘n’ roll lost one of its most important and most iconic figures. So did science fiction.
From his breakout single “Space Oddity” to Blackstar, Bowie’s career and his fascination with sci-fi were so deeply intertwined that it’s impossible–or at least impractical–to separate them. He’s the only person ever to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and while he’s more widely seen as a rock star than a sci-fi visionary, his work encompasses both fields. Looking back at his sprawling body of work, it’s clear that he was as much a sci-fi artist as a musical one.
The earliest phase of his career, from Space Oddity through The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, was his most outwardly science-fictional, but it lacked any of the kitschy, novelty-song aspect that other pop music released during the craze for anything “spacey” that the Space Race had. Although “Space Oddity” was conveniently released as a single just days before the Apollo 11 mission lifted off, its biggest influences were the wave of humanist sci-fi authors like Robert Heinlein whose work was picked up by the counterculture of the time. By the time he created the character and tragic story of Ziggy Stardust (who seems to share some DNA with Stranger In a Strange Land’s Valentine Michael Smith) he was arguably equal to anyone else at building up a mythology and cracking it open to find the intimate human (or at least humanoid) drama at its center.
Thanks to the estate of George Orwell, which torpedoed plans to make a concept album based around 1984, the sci-fi aspect to Bowie’s work receded to a subtler level, but it continued, and Bowie continued to grow as a sci-fi creator. Barred from adapting 1984, he instead created his own dystopian vision for Diamond Dogs that included some of Orwell’s finely tuned paranoia, but relies more heavily on the transgressively sensual apocalyptic visions of William S. Burroughs’ The Wild Boys (also a big influence on Ziggy) and even makes use of the “cut-up” compositional method that Burroughs created. With its sex-soaked depiction of a city transformed by some unnamed apocalyptic event, mashing together mutant street gangs and bits of London’s gay culture, Diamond Dogs has a freakish similarity to the fevered dreamscape of Samuel R. Delany’s maze-like masterpiece Dhalgren, published just a year later.
By the time Bowie abandoned the straightforward glam rock sound of his early ‘70s work, it seemed like the sci-fi element in his work had receded as well, or at least been put on a separate track, with his first major film role in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth released around the time of his first “experimental” rock album Station to Station. The “Berlin trilogy” that followed wasn’t as explicitly sci-fi as his previous albums. They still felt sci-fi though. Bowie’s existential breakdown, expressed through synthesized electronic textures and austere, formal compositions, dovetailed with the impressionistic, more psychologically-focused direction that sci-fi’s avant garde had taken in literature and film. You can find some of The Man Who Fell to Earth in the cracked-up eccentric millionaire at the center of the Berlin albums (although that may have been coincidence or just good casting), but the tense, trance-like energy that the songs are as closely related to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of Solaris as to the krautrock bands Bowie was into at the time. And it’s hard to hear “Always Crashing In The Same Car” from Low, with its mix of voyeurism and vehicular mayhem, without thinking of J.G. Ballard’s Crash.
While Bowie’s work during the ‘80s certainly had a kinky, Ballardian quality to its synthetic, intentionally overproduced sheen, it wasn’t until he experienced a creative renaissance in the mid-’90s that he returned to sci-fi in any meaningful way. His 1995 album Outside–his first work with Brian Eno since the Berlin trilogy–was his most explicitly science-fictional concept album since Ziggy Stardust. It’s also one of the most unique pieces of world-building of his career, mixing Bowie’s interest in neo-paganism with cyberpunk, an Orwellian bureaucratic dystopia, and touch of David Cronenberg’s body horror.
Sci-fi remained a prominent aspect of Bowie’s work for the rest of his life. Cyberpunk influenced the techno-paranoia of “I’m Afraid of Americans,” as well as his explorations of the overlapping space between technology and art–an interest since at least as far back as the Berlin trilogy–in such disparate forms as drum ‘n’ bass beats, CD-ROMs, and even his own ISP, Bowienet, which included what was effectively a music-based social networking site all the way back in 1998.
His longtime collaborator Tony Visconti described Bowie’s death as “a work of art,” and it’s telling that he made sure the last works that he’d leave the world with were explicitly science fictional in nature. For “Lazarus,” the first and final stage musical he ever wrote, he revisited the character of Thomas Jerome Newton that he played in The Man Who Fell to Earth, picking up where the film left off and essentially giving Newton the closure that the movie wouldn’t let him have.
And with its creator’s death just two days after its release, it’s clear that Blackstar was the creation of someone grappling with their own impending mortality. Even as he contemplated his own death, Bowie projected his deepest emotions through a science fictional lens, confronting the looming void in the Nadsat street lingo of Anthony Burgess’s future-thugs from Clockwork Orange on “Girl Loves Me,” and evoking occult rituals on the title track.
Before his death he made two music videos for Blackstar songs, both full of surreal imagery that carries heavy emotional overtones. In both, Bowie’s shown wearing bandages over the upper half of his face with black buttons where his eyes should be. Clearly he’s playing some kind of new character, one marked by death and trembling at the looming unknown. It’s strikingly fantastical and enigmatic, like something out of a Moebius comic or a Jodorowsky film, and it’s purely Bowie’s creation.
On one hand it’s hard to deal with the fact that Bowie himself won’t be around to finish “Button Eyes”’s story, or to explain what it’s all about. But leaving us with a perplexing image to unwind, to engage our reasoning and our more emotional ways of thinking at the same time, in the way that the best sci-fi does, is one of the greatest gifts he could leave us.