Metaphorically speaking, Denver-based author Jason Heller has his feet planted on two different worlds in the literary cosmos. One is ground in music/entertainment journalism, where his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Entertainment Weekly. The other rests in the realm of science fiction as a novelist, short story writer, and editor (winning a Hugo Award for his work in that last category).
He’s combined those two worlds with his new book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded (272 pp., $26.99, Melville House). Heller will be signing books and sitting for an interview/audience Q&A on July 29, 3 p.m. at Cactus Music.
“I feel that I was born to write this book, as preposterous as that sounds!” Heller laughs, noting there was one major event that initially led him down this path.
“I was five years old when Star Wars came out and it made a huge impact. I grew up kind of hard, and having something like that not just as an escape but pointed the way toward this broader idea of the universe…was just amazing. Then when Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars theme came out, that was important. You couldn’t just go back and watch the movie again back then. But through the music, you could relive the movie and the story.”
Heller’s narrative in Strange Stars begins with the appearance of sci-fi themes in some of the great classic rock acts of the ‘60s like the Byrds (“Mr. Spaceman”), Jimi Hendrix (“Third Stone from the Sun,”), and Pink Floyd (“Astronomy Dominie,” “Interstellar Overdrive”), and Jefferson Starship.
It turns out that a lot of rock musicians doubled as fans of sci-fi novels and the works of authors like Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. There’s even a mention of “purplish haze” in Philip Jose Farmer’s 1957 novel Night of Light, which a young Hendrix reportedly devoured.
But the sci-fi/rock connection really kicks off with the release of David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity.” That the song about the doomed mission of Major Tom appeared the same month (July 1969) as the historic Apollo 11 moon landing was not lost on Heller (nor, it seems, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, who shortly thereafter put out “Rocket Man”).
In fact, David Bowie is sort of the guiding light of the whole book, which breaks down the relationship and examples between science fiction and popular music year by year. And no single album probably made a bigger impact than Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie would often return to sci-fi themes over his career, but his embodiment of the rock star alien with the cropped, short red hair, lightning bolt across his face, and tight silver suit would be the most well-known physical manifestation of the coupling.
Though Heller does pull out an obscure quote from Bowie in which the singer states that Ziggy was not actually an alien, but a human under control of outer space denizens, thus blowing up decades of music journalism and Bowie fandom.
“The book was already started when Bowie died, but he kind of crystallized the whole thing for me, and I had Bowie on the brain,” Heller offers. “He was always going to be the main character of the book. ‘Space Oddity’ was not the first rock song that took science fiction seriously, but it really brought all these elements together in a cohesive idea. And that fact that he made a promotional video added to it, his imagery was so striking. It captured the imagination of people, happening the year after 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Bowie would also later champion newer acts like Kraftwerk, Devo, and the Human League, all of whom had sci-fi themes and sounds in their music. And many acts were looking at issues of the future, technology, space travel, and extraterrestrial beings.
Heller’s encyclopedic narrative also digs deep – very deep – into bands and performers with sci-fi themes in their music, like Hawkwind, Rush, Magma (Magma!), Sun Ra, and the Houston-raised Jobriath. He also details that there was a proposed collaboration between Paul McCartney and “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry for something of a Wings sci-fi battles of the bands movie, though it never came to fruition.
But there’s a lot of talk about two acts in particular who took science fiction narratives throughout their entire discography: the seemingly disparate Blue Öyster Cult and Parliament-Funkadelic (the latter act well-known for having its own “mothership” UFO on stage).
“Those two bands are actually very similar in one important way. They had not just science fiction songs and ideas, but one vast narrative that threaded its way through the majority of their albums,” Heller says. “The conceived of an entire science fiction backdrop they unveiled song by song and scene by scenes with characters and conflicts and themes. Part of a much larger story, and that’s a deep level of conceptualization for a band.”
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Finally, one only need to look around today at the huge popularity of genres like science fiction and comic books in TV, movies, video games, and all other forms of pop culture. That now includes cosplay competitions and mass gatherings like the San Diego Comic Con and Houston’s Comicpalooza. Areas of interest that, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, were more fringe interests for a small group of “geeks.”
So we ask Heller – in 2018, have the nerds finally won?
“I was one of those skinny, wallflower kids who didn’t play sports and had glasses and played Dungeons and Dragons and was into science fiction and comic books, but ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ wasn’t a pre-made identity the kind that you can just plug into now and is [accepted],” Heller sums up. “But I love the fact that all this stuff I was into as a kid is cool now. It’s better than anything I could have dreamed up. You really had to devote yourself to find and follow this stuff when I was growing up. So yes, the nerds have won to a certain degree.”
Jason Heller will sign and discuss Strange Stars on Sunday, July 29, at 3 p.m. at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth. For information, call 713-529-9272 or visit CactusMusicTx.com. For more on Heller, visit JasonHellerAuthor.com