An alien hovers uncertainly in the stratosphere, unsure about the waiting Earth below; what to expect there, whether the discovery of his very existence will be too much for the populace, driving them en masse to war or even insanity. He makes his first contact not with the leaders of this world, eschewing that tired phrase of space travel, ‘take me to your leader’. Instead, he sends a message of goodwill through the battered transistors of a million teenagers, who are listening to the radio late at night (after all, this musical escape is the nearest any of them up ’til now could ever get to a feeling of something outside of the Earth).This is the basic plot of one of the finest science fiction stories of the 20th Century. But you won’t find it in any book or see it in any cinema or on any television – it’s the synopsis for the fourth song on ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’, ‘Starman‘.
“There’s a starman waiting in the skies
He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’ll blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it, ’cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie”
For me, the most immersive and most involving science fiction of all time comes not from Wells, Gibson or Banks but from this skinny ex-hippy from that least sci-fi of locations, Bromley. Like many pulp authors he goes by a variety of aliases. The Dame. The Thin White Duke. The Goblin King. But we know him best (or maybe not at all) as David Bowie.
What sets Bowie apart from the coterie of ‘real’ science fiction is that he didn’t (and doesn’t) just write about this cast of fantastic characters; he lived them. Anyone who’s ever seen his performance of ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops could easily believe that this creature really was from outer space, a place where sexuality was more fluid, where the freaks ruled. This is a sci-fi that appealed to me, a teenager growing up in suburban Bristol, catching Bowie on a TOTP rerun. This was a science fiction that was truly (pardon the pun) alien.
After all, as fantastical as I found, say, Star Wars, Spider-Man or classic Doctor Who they were essentially stories where boy aliens still fell in love with girl aliens (even if they were their sisters…) Even as new Who came along with its queer touches, these were always side characters or brief punchlines. Bowie as Ziggy was none of these things. He was the leader, staring straight into the screen of primetime Britain, provocatively putting his arm around his guitarist, or even miming oral sex on his guitar (although admittedly not on primetime), and declaring he was gay in national magazines. That this could have been happening in 1972 was a science fiction enough before you even got to the character of Ziggy himself, and his own dark narrative of rock and roll birth and rock and roll suicide.
They say the best science fiction should tell you something about the modern world, but seeing and hearing David Bowie did far more than that – it told me something about myself, before I had the words or the notions of identity politics to realise it. And for that it will always be the encounter with science fiction I will remember most fondly.
[Eds. Note – I think the role David Bowie has on Science Fiction is one to explore in greater depth in future, and something I will almost certainly do on this blog. There can be no doubt that Bowie’s Narratives, from ‘Ziggy Stardust…’, through the Major Tom trilogy, through to ‘Outsiders I’ are intrinsically science fictional in their message, both lyrically and performatively, and as a result it was with great pleasure I received the news recently that he was to be inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. This alongside 2013’s other nominees, J.R.R. Tolkien & Joanna Russ, to name but two.]