David Bowie, who just died of cancer aged 69, had an incalculable impact on pop culture throughout his shape-shifting career. But perhaps more than any other musician, he also had a tremendous impact on science fiction. He changed the way we thought about the alien, the uncanny, and the familiar.
Bowie’s first hit single, “Space Oddity,” established him not just as an artist who sang about science-fictional topics like space travel, but also as someone who embraced the discomfort of humanity juxtaposed against the cosmos. The song’s churning guitar riffs and psychedelic noises convey something of the disorientation of floating in a tin can, far from home. Over the years that followed, Bowie produced some of the most poignant representations ever of alien visitors, doomed grandeur and tormented supermen. I recently listened to his song “The Man Who Sold the World” on a loop while writing, and it reveals more and more layers of pathos, remorse and arrogance the more you hear it.
Bowie’s greatest gift to science fiction was that combination of pathos and dissocation, which comes across in a lot of his best songs. His album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a rock opera about a band led by a mysterious figure, encapsulates the apocalypse, androgyny and rockstar excess with the same bohemian drama. (Click here to read Bowie explaining to William S. Burroughs the whole fascinating backstory of Ziggy Stardust.) Ziggy Stardust was just one of many personas that Bowie created over the years, including the zombie-like Thin White Duke.
Here’s more of Bowie talking about Ziggy Stardust, with animation: io9