Exploring David Bowie’s Sci-Fi Fascination

Nobody would blame you if you thought David Bowie was really an alien.

Photo: British Lion Films

When David Bowie slipped away in 2016, he went out in a flurry of artistic output and a regret that he had more to say. His final album, Blackstar, held out the universal promise of the endless possibilities that can be found in vast emptiness of space. Bowie was an out of this world artist steeped in all forms of science fiction, and was even inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in June 2013.

Bowie first cemented his public image as a stellar performer, we can’t really blame anyone for mistaking the man and the Starman. The rock and rolling space invader had been telling us not to be “afraid of the man in the moon because it’s only me” since he promised to “Love You Till Tuesday” in 1967.

Bowie blasted into public consciousness with his song “Space Oddity,” the former and future actor sang in the character of astronaut Major Tom. The song, recorded on June 20, 1969, was released five days before the launch of the Apollo 11 which landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. NASA kind of adopted the song a generation later. The astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia said “Space Oddity” was their wake up tune when they were in space on June 24, 1996.

Bowie’s song “Changes” was a hit for the Columbia on Nov. 29, 1996. The Space Shuttle Atlantis astronauts entertained themselves with a medley of Bowie hits on Oct. 10, 2002. But Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield reclaimed “Space Oddity” for the program when he played an acoustic version from the International Space Station on May 12, 2013. When Mr. Bowie finally departed our planet, Hadfield tweeted “Ashes to ashes, dust to stardust. Your brilliance inspired us all. Goodbye Starman.” Major Tom is more than a moon mascot, he is an honorary astronaut.

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Major Tom would continue to be a spectral voice through some of Bowie’s most personal narrations, including “Hallo Spaceboy” from his album Outside (1995). In the video for Bowie’s 2015 song “Blackstar,” a female alien founds a religion on the holy relic of Major Tom’s skull. In the song “Ashes to Ashes” from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) from 1980, Bowie admitted that the whole space travel thing was really a cover for a different trip and that the astronaut was really just a “junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low.” Bowie is further referencing the descent that he explored on his 1977 album Low, which was largely about the artist’s own drug withdrawal.

The song’s title, “Space Oddity,” is a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 short story “The Sentinel” into the cinematic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that similar space cadets Pink Floyd campaigned to score. But the influence doesn’t end there. The blastoff sequence in “Space Oddity” is reminiscent of Also sprach Zarathustra, composed by Richard Strauss in 1896, which was the theme of discovery in the motion picture.

Kubrick also interpreted Anthony Burgess’s book A Clockwork Orange. The music for Kubrick’s film was composed by Wendy Carlos, then known as Walter Carlos. Wendy Carlos was a  surgically gender-reassigned musician. Carlos showed what can be done on the Moog synthesizer, when she synthesized Johann Sebastian Bach on the album Switched-On Bach (1968). Carlos also scored The Shining (1980).

Bowie shows his familiarity with the cautionary futuristic tale of A Clockwork Orange by referring to his friends as droogies in the song “Suffragette City,” from the album which introduced the androgynous rock star Ziggy Stardust, who shows up on earth just five years before its impending doom. There are also hints that he read Michael Moorcock’s 1965 novel The Final Programme which features the androgynous secret agent Jerry Cornelius, who is also a part-time rock star.

Bowie was a life-long science fiction fan. How could he not be? He was a kid in the fifties when sci-fi ruled movies and literature.

Science fiction was also a way to write autobiographically and allegorically. He could tell his life as a fable. Bowie, the future Starman who was born David Jones, mentioned in interviews that he loved Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones, which came out when he was 6 years old in 1953. When Bowie sang and played sax for The Lower Third, the band covered Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from the orchestral suite The Planets, but was better known at the time as the theme song to the BBC’s fifties sci-fi series Quatermass.

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In “Space Oddity,” Major Tom’s tin can forgets which way to go and there’s nothing Ground Control can do. Ray Bradbury wrote about astronauts dying in a spacecraft malfunction in his story “Kaleidoscope.” Bowie’s 1967 song “Karma Man” references Bradbury’s 1951 book The Illustrated Man when he sings:

“Fairy tale skin, depicting scenes from human zoos. Impermanent toys like peace and war a gentle face you’ve seen before. Karma man tattooed on your side, the wheel of life.”

Bowie wasn’t just “Dancing out in Space” in his songs. He interpreted George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four into the magnificent album Diamond Dogs.

Like many science fiction writers, Bowie warned that governmental bodies of the future have the capacity to devastate and depersonalize even the most human of natures. Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs started out as a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, but Orwell’s widow, Sonia Orwell, didn’t give official permission. But it told a “Future Legend” where “fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats” and corpses with red mutant eyes looked away while the anti sex league made all fornicators the walking dead. “Drive-In Saturday” from the Aladdin Sane album from 1973 takes place in the year 2033, when people have forgotten how to have sex and have to watch porn for tips while “cursing at the astronette.”

The science fiction lyricist shares a lot of the same sentiments with his literary contemporaries when it comes to envisioning the organizations that would rise to rule future citizens. In the 1969 song “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie sees a society that grew after people “slit the Catholic throat and stoned the poor on slogans such as ‘Wish You Could Hear,’ ‘Love Is All We Need,’ ‘Kick Out The Jams,’ ‘Kick Out Your Mother,’ ‘Cut Up Your Friend’ and ‘Screw Up Your Brother or He’ll Get You In the End’.”

Bowie’s “We Are Hungry Men” from 1967 tells the story about a future scientist who solves world hunger. “Achtung, achtung, these are your orders,” he advises the assembled masses. “Anyone found guilty of consuming more than their allotted amount of air will be slaughtered and cremated.” He urges the government to legalize mass abortion and turn a blind eye to infanticide in an attempt to save the people on earth from dying within the year. He thinks the hungry crowd sees him as a messiah, but they don’t give a damn for what he’s saying. “We’re here to eat you,” they explain.

On Hunky Dory from 1971, Bowie uses the term “Homo superior” on the song “Oh! You Pretty Things,” a term often utilized in Marvel Comics by X-Men villain/radical Magneto. He continues the evolutionary reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch on “The Supermen” from The Man Who Sold the World

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But Bowie doesn’t stop at the evils mere mortals will grow into. He wasn’t too trustful of self-aware artificial intelligence either. The computer on “Savior Machine,” from the 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World, “hates the species that gave it life.” 

Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” came the same year as the launch of Russia’s Mars probes as well as the United States’ launch of the Mariner 9. Guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder were the Spiders From Mars, but Bowie wasn’t content with our red planet neighbors.

In his 1970 single “Memory of a Free Festival” he “talked with tall Venusians passing through.”

Audiences who weren’t familiar with Bowie when he first hit America, thought he might have been “Born in a UFO.” “Lady Stardust” had makeup on his face and an animal grace. But Ziggy Stardust was a “Starman” who was sure to blow minds because he was also the first contact we’d had from this extraterrestrial.

Bowie cemented his image as the iconic star man when he starred in in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 cult-film classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, which was based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name. The cover of Bowie’s album Station to Station, is the spacecraft that Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton designed.

This writer believes David Bowie is still creating. The universe is expanding, and as it is infinite, it can only expand into itself. Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day ends with the same drum beat as “Five Years” which begins The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

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Annie Ko sings for Love X Stereo, an electro rock/synth punk duo based in Seoul, Korea. She also has a background in astrophysics. She studied astronomical spectroscopy, which “figures out the overall structure of a star or planet” at the Seoul National University Graduate School. Ko spoke with Den of Geek about the science fact behind some of Bowie’s science fiction.

Is there any way we can tell where Major Tom is floating, based on the clues from “Space Oddity,” assuming he’s not just strung out in heaven’s high?

Well, I believe every astronaut who’s still alive must be A. on the ground or B. out there somewhere. So, I’d say if Major Tom is still out there since 1969, he’d be dead already because of lack of oxygen, don’t you think?

What do you think Major Tom would have thought of Elton John’s 1972 hit “Rocketman”?

It’s quite confusing when Rocket Man says things like “It’s just my job five days a week,” because it takes like a year to get to Mars. Personally, I think Major Tom would’ve thought Rocket Man is nothing but a liar or a junkie. Or, maybe he did only work five days a week when he was actually on Mars.

Could there be spiders on Mars? Is it possible that insects are a universal life form? Were The Beatles and The Crickets trying to tell us something that only the Spiders got right?

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Hm. I’ve never studied zoology, so I really don’t know. But I don’t think that insects are a universal life form. Insects depend on air, water, plants, flowers, and other species to survive, just like any other life form on earth.

Why is it always 1982 in space and what’s so funny about that?

I don’t know? Maybe because E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial came out that year?

How are out in space do you have to go in order for the stars to look very different?

You don’t need to get out of earth to do that, actually. If you live in the States, just move to Brazil, and you’ll see the difference already.

Do stars change appearance depending on a planet’s atmosphere?

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Our atmosphere especially makes the star “twinkle.” If the planet’s atmosphere is different, it will be seen different.

Would you really move like water if you were dancing out in space?

What I’ve heard is that floating in space is a lot like floating in water. That’s why they practice their moves deep down in a large swimming pool. But, I wouldn’t say it’s exactly the same. There are many differences in terms of pressure, temperature, and many other variables. 

Are electric eyes, referenced in “Moonage Daydream,” used in space ships?

If that “electric eyes” somehow means a Hubble Space Telescope? Then that one has been launched in space carried by Space Shuttle Discovery.

Would an electric eye be effective in space?

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Oh yes. Hubble Space Telescope has brought numerous images and data about the space. Because it’s in space, the visibility is much stronger than the telescopes located down on earth.

Are there any planets that a pink monkey bird might find habitable?

Not in our solar system.

What planet do you think Bowie is from in The Man Who Fell to Earth?

Somewhere out of our solar system.

Would that planet be receiving our radio and TV messages?

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I guess. But it’s gonna take a while to get there.

How long do you think it would have taken his character to travel from that planet to earth?

It depends on the technology. If Bowie’s people somehow knew how to create wormholes, walk through various dimensions, or control time and space, he might’ve been here in a sec, stayed for a while, and got back home just like that.

Should we worry about New Killer Stars?

If that star is about to kill you, then yes.

Are there black stars?

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A black star is a theoretical star built using semi-classical gravity as an alternative to a black hole. A black hole is very well known of its humongously strong gravitational effects, which sucks in everything – including light – NOTHING can escape from it. Watch Interstellar to know all about it.