All it takes is one look at the striking psychedelic cover of Jason Heller's Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded to know its bold promise: to take readers directly to the intersection of science fiction and rock music of the 1970s. Filled with numerous examples of 70s pop culture references from music, books, film and television, the only real question is whether the ride is entertaining enough to keep you from tuning it out before you reach of the end of the journey. The short answer is a resounding Yes.
You're Stuck with a Valuable Friend
One could say that the birth if this book took place in the 1970s. That's the decade in which author Jason Heller's love of both science fiction and rock music began. The primary vehicles of this adoration were two of pop culture's biggest sensations: rock legend David Bowie (who is featured prominently throughout the book) and cinematic sensation Star Wars. It wasn't until 2015, though—one year before Bowie's death in 2016, as it would turn out—that work properly began on Strange Stars and Heller began assembling a remarkably comprehensive survey of the pop culture landscape seen through a science fictional lens.
Strange Stars is organized logically enough. Ten chapters, one for each year between 1970 and 1979, bookended by two more chapters for the late 60s and early 80s. The resulting effect is like stepping into a time machine and witnessing the events of the decade unfold in fast forward, stopping here and there to note the times that pop culture saw fit to recognize science fiction. This is a time that science fiction was looked down upon in many circles, a stigma that still persists today, albeit to some lesser degree thanks in part to music outlined in the book. Heller argues (and shows) that in some ways, science fiction came into its own that decade because of the ways in which it pervaded pop culture. Some events helped raise its credibility. In the late 1960s, there were current events like the first moon landing and films like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. In the 1970s, it was the music being played on the radio, much of it written and performed by fans of science fiction.
I Will Sit Right Down, Waiting For The Gift Of Sound And Vision
As writers are fond of saying, literature is a conversation between writers, with each new story being a response to the literature that came beforehand. Strange Stars shows us that the conversation is broader than we might have realized, existing between the multiple media of literature, music and film. It's hard to see otherwise when Heller gives numerous concrete examples of how a piece of science fictional work in one medium links to other works. For instance, when talking about the album Space Hymns by Barrington Frost (a.k.a. Ramses), he notes album cover artist Roger Dean, who designed a futuristic chair for the film A Clockwork Orange, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel. Dean also designed album covers for the band Yes, whose song "Starship Trooper" shared a title with the Robert A. Heinlein novel of the same name, and so on. Many such leapfrogging links keep the reader entranced to find out where the conversation leads. Chances are it leads to longer reading piles and music playlists, too.
Attribute that hunger for consuming more media and books to Heller's writing. Having written for major media magazines like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, he knows how to engage readers with brief-but-enticing description of the books and music that he's surveying. His description of pivotal real-life events (with sources cited in an index) makes the legends seem almost mundane, and thus all the more remarkable for having occurred. (David Bowie read Robert A. Heinlein as a youngster? Michael Moorcock jammed with Hawkwind?) It can't be easy to convey with words the sound and feel of a song, but Heller makes it look easy. For example, he describes the aforementioned Space Hymns as "haunting and exquisitely sad...dripping with post-psychedelic eccentricity and an eerie blurring of outer space and emotional turmoil." How can you not want to give it a listen?
There's a Starman Waiting in the Sky
Be assured: when reading Strange Stars, you'll want to read (or reread) the science fiction classics that are frequently referenced throughout the book. You'll want to pull up your favorite streaming service and revisit the music of 1970s and beyond. Let me get you started: here's a Spotify Playlist featuring the 134 available songs from the discography listed in Strange Stars.
Think of Strange Stars as a prose menu of science fiction sights and sounds of the Seventies. (Side note: There needs to be a dessert cart follow up: a 10-part documentary sourced from this book. Filmmakers, make that happen!) If you like classic rock or classic science fiction, definitely check out Strange Stars for a truly worthwhile walk down memory lane. If you like both, consider this a must-have.