Author: Tony Keen

David Bowie and science fiction

Updated Tuesday, 12th January 2016
It's fair to say David Bowie had an obvious fascination with space and future dystopias, Tony Keen looks at the roots of the starman's relationship with science fiction.

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David Bowie influenced science fiction almost as much as he influenced music and fashion. As well as his own performances in science fiction and fantasy movies such as The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976), Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) and The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006), the Bowie aesthetic can be seen in many sf movies and other texts. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) could hardly have existed had Bowie never been.


Sf imagery is found throughout Bowie’s early work, in song titles such as ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and ‘Life On Mars?’ He is a key figure in the relationship between science fiction and pop music, most obviously for two pieces of work. First is his 1969 single ‘Space Oddity’, a response both to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the US Apollo programme, which reached its climax in July 1969 with the Apollo 11 landings on the Moon. The other is his 1972 LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, explained by Bowie as a concept album about an alien who becomes a rock star, though structurally the record breaks down into two sections, sf songs on Side One, and songs about a rock star on Side Two. The sf elements in Bowie’s early work are discussed by Maureen King in a paper written in 1994 – ironically, King viewed sf as something Bowie had left behind shortly before Bowie himself returned to sf with his Outside album (1995).


Bowie was a literate man, and will have read much sf. George Orwell’s 1984 and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange were among his favourite books, and he’s known to have read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. But the prevalent feeling one gets from Bowie’s most science-fictional work is the aesthetic of the writers for New Worlds magazine in the 1960s, J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock. Bowie returns time and time again to future dystopias (e.g. ‘Drive-In Saturday’ from Aladdin Sane, 1973). As Barry Miles notes in his book on London’s counterculture, London Falling, New Worlds and its writers were part of the make-up of Swinging London, and, under the influence of psychedelic drugs, bands such as Pink Floyd (of which Bowie was a fan) were taking sf imagery into their work.

As with so much else in the late twentieth century, it will be impossible to write the history of sf without mentioning Bowie.

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