Jason Heller is a writer, musician, and sci-fi obsessive, who has written for the likes of the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork. His new book Strange Stars is a painstakingly researched love letter to sci-fi and songs, book-ended by David Bowie’s near religious experience watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and ‘Blackstar’ and his death in 2016.
We spoke to Jason ahead of the release of Strange Stars to learn more about his writing process, Major Tom, Afrofuturism, and the bizarre connection between Paul McCartney and Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry.
How long did the book take to finish overall?
A little over two years. Much of that – probably to my agent’s and editor’s consternation – was spent researching and outlining and just generally pondering the overall shape and narrative flow of the book. Once I finally locked those structures down, though, it was a mad dash to draft the actual thing – most of it written in a frantic, four-month period. It was one of those moments where everything you’ve absorbed and digested and processed for so long comes together organically, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world. Especially when the subject matter is so personally resonant, like Strange Stars’ topics of science fiction and music are with me.
What was the research process for the book like? Intensive?
Yes and no. It was intensive in regard to the amount of material – printed, online, visual, audio – that I had to sift through in order to do the topic justice. But at the same time, it was a kind of free-flowing and intuitive process that involved a lot of wandering and play. Sometimes I would knuckle down and pour over all the obvious research sources such as biographies of David Bowie and histories of ’70s music. Other times I would flip through used records or YouTube, just waiting to see what might pop up at me.
I took a break, for instance, to read Thomas Dolby’s recent memoir The Speed of Sound, with the assumption that it wouldn’t actually be useful for Strange Stars, since Dolby is known for his ’80s music and Strange Stars is about ’70s music. As it turned out, my tangent was an incredibly useful one; not only did I discover Dolby’s link to The Buggles, one of the most important sci-fi bands in the final chapter of my book, I picked up a great anecdote that Dolby relates about hanging out with George Clinton. And did you know that Simon House, the violinist who played with Hawkwind, David Bowie, and Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix in the ’70s, also plays that eerie violin melody in Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”? I sure didn’t. But it was a neat bit of trivia I stumbled across that just underscored the interconnectedness of this sci-if-music universe.
Strange Stars was born out of your own twin obsessions with sci-fi and music. Was there a particular moment or piece of trivia that sparked your interest in turning these into a book?
I can’t pinpoint an exact moment of conception, but I do remember this: For six weeks in 2009 I attended Odyssey Writers Workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire, which is one of the big science fiction and fantasy workshops. One of our teachers, the late, great Jack Ketchum, came into class on his first day and asked us what books we’d brought to the workshop, just to read recreationally while we were there? His idea, it turned out, was to see if these books pertained to our approach toward and inspiration for writing. I intentionally had not brought a book to Odyssey; I felt it might give me an excuse to procrastinate instead of write.
So when it was my turn to answer the question, being the smartass that I am, I held up my iPod and said that the sci-fi novel I brought to the workshop was David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was a semi-flippant answer, but Ketchum took it in stride, and a few seconds later I realized something: I really do consider Ziggy Stardust to be a sci-fi novel, or at least novelistic in conception and scope. And it made me start to think about sci-fi music is rarely granted legitimacy by the sci-fi community and is rarely allowed into the sci-fi canon.
What was the strangest or most interesting connection you found when writing the book?
Definitely the one between Paul McCartney and Gene Roddenberry. As I talk about in Strange Stars, McCartney requested Roddenberry’s presence at a Wings concert in LA in 1976; at that point, Roddenberry was not doing all that well professionally, since the original Star Trek show had been off the air for many years, and even its rising popularity in syndication had yet to result in a viable film project. As it turned out, McCartney wasn’t only a massive Star Trek fan, he had an ulterior motive for bringing Star Trek’s creator to his concert: He wanted Roddenberry to write a script based on his idea of a cosmic battle of the planets – sort of like an interplanetary Eurovision – which of course would involve Wings. Roddenberry actually wrote some treatments for this idea, which ultimately went nowhere. But according to Roddenberry’s longtime assistant, those treatments are probably still stuck in a file cabinet somewhere.
Is ‘Space Oddity’ the defining sci-fi song? If not, what is?
Yes, it is. In Strange Stars, I do go out of my way to challenge some conventional thinking and assumptions about sci-fi music, but there’s just no disputing the fact that “Space Oddity” not only put Bowie on the map, it put sci-fi music on the map. Songs about outer space had existed before, of course, but the timing of “Space Oddity” with the Apollo 11 moon landing – not to mention the song’s sonic, emotional, and cinematic ambition – made it click. Never before had science fiction been treated so deeply and relevantly in popular song, and it became not only a vast inspiration, but the template by which sci-fi music would be judged – to the point where Bowie himself began recycling his doomed astronaut. There are so many excellent sci-fi songs that have been made since, but “Space Oddity” is the genre’s “Rapper’s Delight” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
What prevented Jefferson Airplane from becoming the defining sci-fi band?
As I argue in Strange Stars, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship rivalled Bowie as a songwriter in the psychedelic and post-psychedelic era who most exemplified science fiction in his music. In fact, Kantner’s devotion to sci-fi was much stronger and more consistent to Bowie’s, especially as it was reflected in song. Starting with his 1970 solo debut Blows Against the Empire, Kantner rarely released an album that didn’t feature at least a couple sci-fi songs on it, and he event went so far as to establish contact with some of his favorite sci-fi authors to discuss their influence on him. But Kantner had the misfortune of actually becoming famous and successful before starting to make sci-fi music. His early hits with Jefferson Airplane like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” solidly established him as a songwriter of the psychedelic ’60s, which made it harder for him to bring his listenership with him – or pick up new fans – when he began following his sci-fi muse. Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship did continue to have plenty of success in the ’70s, but it was despite Kantner’s sci-fi obsession, not because of it.
Meanwhile Bowie, ironically, benefitted from his lack of early success. He’d been toiling away for years in the ’60s, playing in various bands and releasing numerous records without any real success. So when “Space Oddity” burst into the collective consciousness in 1969, he seemed like a fresh, new entity who came with no baggage or preconceived identity to fight against. He was Bowie the Spaceman – and while that served him well on the launchpad of his career, it became something he pushed against as the ’70s progressed and he felt constricted by that pigeonhole. Kantner, on the other hand, would have loved to have been in Bowie’s shoes! He passionately desired to be rock’s ambassador to science fiction, and/or the other way around. Although he never became that, the excellence of Kantner’s sci-fi music endures.
There seems to be a strong spiritual element to sci-fi music as well, particularly in regards to Sun Ra and Afrofuturism. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
The spiritual element in the Afrofuturist music of the ’70s, especially Sun Ra, comes from the renewed connection at the time between African American culture and the spirituality of African culture, particularly Ancient Egyptian mythology. In this sense, the line between the metaphysical and the science-fictional is blurred in much Afrofuturist music, then and now. It makes for a less scientifically rigorous kind of sci-fi; instead, the tropes of science fiction such as spaceships and time travel become metaphors for exodus, diaspora, and reclaiming stolen pasts. It’s one of the richest and most complex ways science fiction has been used in music, and Sun Ra was the prime synthesist.
There are a surprising number of crossovers between science fiction authors and musicians. Why do you think that is? We don’t really see a similar crossover in other genres…
I think there’s a dialogue between popular music and just about every literary genre, but I feel that the dialogue between music and science fiction is unique. They not only feed on each other in an artistic way, there’s a third essential factor: real-life science and technology. It’s a synergy I tried to illustrate in Strange Stars – that sci-fi musicians in the ’70s weren’t just conversing with a literary canon, but with the way space exploration and studio technology and home computers and artificial organs and robotics and video games and all these other rapid innovations were becoming commonplace.
Who are your personal favourite sci-fi band, or what is your favourite sci-fi song?
I’m going to go with a childhood favourite rather than a current favourite, which would just be too hard to pick. As a kid in the ’80s, I was enraptured by Peter Schilling’s song “Major Tom” every time it came on the radio. The lurching rhythm in the verse, the ominous countdown in the pre-chorus, the vertigo-inducing chorus during which the Earth falls away under Schilling as he rises into space… This was the time of the Space Shuttle, and I lived in Florida, able to see the plume of exhaust of the booster rockets on the horizon.
I was well aware of Bowie at the time too, but I didn’t immediately make the connection between Schilling’s song and the Major Tom of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes.” When I figured that out, I was even more in awe of Schilling’s “Major Tom.” Could he do that? Use another singer’s character in his song? Was it even legal? Was he ripping Bowie off? Or paying tribute to him? How far can one’s fandom go? All these questions surface in my mind, and the notion of popular music as mythology started to grow – to the point where I eventually had to write Strange Stars in the attempt to come to grips with it.
I’ve co-edited an anthology of science fiction, weird fiction, and fantasy stories titled Mechanical Animals – yes, a Marilyn Manson nod – with the amazing Selena Chambers. It’ll be published this November, and I’m super excited about that. As the title more than implies, the book features stories that somehow involve mechanical animals, something I’m a bit kooky about; I even have several tattoos of mechanical animals, including a steampunk whale, Bubo the clockwork owl from Clash of the Titans, and the typewriter insect from David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. I’m also a musician, and I play guitar in a dark post-punk band called Weathered Statues that will be touring Europe this fall, which will be a nice break from all the writerly stuff. As for my next nonfiction book, I can’t leak too many details quite yet, but… it will be about ’70s music, but it will not be about science fiction. Michael Jackson and The Clash will figure very heavily into it. But if I start blabbing about it now, I’ll never shut up! Better to let everyone read the thing when the time comes.
Strange Stars will be available in the UK from 21st June 2018 (9781612196978, £20.00, Hardback)