“Here am I sitting in a tin can/far above the world/planet Earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do…”
Rich layers of synth and guitar oozed from my mother’s monolithic turntable speakers. They probably stood taller than I did the first time she played me one of her David Bowie LPs. His music provided a soundtrack to the science fiction images that—thanks to other early influences like the Star Wars trilogy—already shimmered in my young brain.
When I heard this morning that Bowie had passed away at age 69, losing his private cancer battle just days after releasing his final album, the loss felt a little more personal than the usual farewell to an aging celebrity. It felt like a piece of my imagination had died. Media tributes for Bowie have, rightfully, celebrated his contributions to music and performance. But Bowie’s unique creative force extended even beyond these disciplines: through his diverse work, he became an an ambassador for science fiction.
It began in 1969, the year mankind took its giant leap. Apollo 11 landed on the moon, igniting public interest in what lay beyond Earth. The space zeitgeist found an anthem in David Bowie’s a funky rock single “Space Oddity”. Riffing (literally) on Stanley Kubrik’s epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released the previous year, the song chronicles an astronaut’s journey into space. BBC played the song when the Apollo crew returned safely home and propelled it to number five on the UK music charts.
“This is Ground Control to Major Tom/You’ve really made the grade/and the papers want to know whose shirts you wear…”
Bowie carried the sci-fi aesthetic into subsequent projects. The 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars introduced his persona as the titular alien rocker and featured songs like “Starman”. A few years later, Bowie wanted to produce a theatrcal version of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. When Orwell’s estate denied the rights, Bowie turned what he’d already written into the Diamond Dogs album, which evokes a post-apocalyptic world.
Sci-fi themes also permeated Bowie’s filmography, most notably The Man Who Fell To Earth. The film earned Bowie a Saturn Award for his performance as an extraterrestrial who arrives on Earth seeking water for his drought-stricken homeworld. In The Hunger he played a vampire’s consort in search of immortality. Fans born in the 80’s, like me, fondly recall him as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s cult classic Labyrinth. All these role showcase the otherworldly androgyny that became Bowie’s signature style.
In 2013, Bowie was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame—now part of Seattle’s Electronic Music Project Museum—for his work in the genres, constantly exploring and challenging their memes. Bowie’s career itself possessed a metamorphic quality. An iconic shapeshifter, he crafted new personas and showed us musical evolutions that mirrored changing social and musical trends.
“Can you hear me, Major Tom? / Can you hear me, Major Tom?”
Major Tom can’t hear us anymore. But his legacy will echo through popular culture like a signal through space, transmitting for generations to come.