How music continues to draw inspiration from science fiction

How music continues to draw inspiration from science fiction

Last month, EMP Museum in Seattle announced its 2013 inductees into the Science Fiction And Fantasy Hall Of Fame. Each year since 1996, the Hall Of Fame has honored an elite group chosen from authors, visual artists, television creators, and filmmakers who have left indelible imprints on the genres—from the mother of science fiction, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, up through Isaac Asimov and Steven Spielberg. EMP’s 2013 list was mostly business as usual. The most remarkable thing about it, at first glance, is the fact that it took so long for J.R.R. Tolkien to make the cut. That is, until a far less expected name appears alongside Tolkien’s: David Bowie.

Bowie is the first songwriter—or at least the first notable songwriter; Shelley penned the lyrics to a tune or two in her day—to be inducted into the Hall Of Fame. As songwriters go, he’s justifiably the obvious choice. Bowie’s love affair with science fiction began with his 1969 breakthrough hit, “Space Oddity,” which not-so-accidentally coincided with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as the Apollo 11 moon landing. That canny bit of zeitgeist-capturing instantly turned Bowie into the patron saint of geeks who rock.

Since then, Bowie has remained in orbit around science fiction. Earlier this year he released his first studio album in 10 years, The Next Day; not only does it touch on many of the sci-fi elements he’s probed in the past, but also its very title seems to ponder untold tomorrows, the stuff of which so much sci-fi is made.

Bowie, though, is neither the first nor the last musician to find inspiration in science fiction and fantasy. The list is long, and it’s filled with artists from every era and genre since popular music came of age in the early 20th century. There’s Sun Ra and his Afrocentric, astral-projection jazz; Hawkwind and its psychedelic exploration of inner space; Gary Numan and his icy dystopias; Dr. Octagon and his gonzo sci-fi mash-ups; and Locrian with its recent homage to transgressive sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany (himself an inductee of the Science Fiction And Fantasy Hall Of Fame). Taken together, these artists—and thousands more like them, famous and obscure—have formed a parallel genre-fiction canon every bit as rich as the literature it draws from.

But if a group could be singled out as the next clear musical inductee into EMP’s Hall Of Fame, it’s Parliament. In its ’70s-and-’80s prime, the sprawling cyber-funk collective and its various offshoots—led by the visionary cosmic shaman, George Clinton—imagined the soundtrack of the future, and helped mold that future by doing so. On classic albums like 1976’s The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein and 1982’s Computer Games, organic funk is grafted to robotic tones to create a sci-fi sound full of optimism and dread; doing so wove a loose yet vast mythology. It’s exactly what legendary genre authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and the late Jack Vance—again, members of the Science Fiction And Fantasy Hall Of Fame—have accomplished in prose. Only, in Parliament’s case, reading the sprawling epics isn’t the only option; you can dance, think, fuck, freak, and wonder.

Not to second-guess EMP—it has long done fantastic work promoting the culture of the fantastic—but its induction of Bowie feels like a tokenistic move akin to when the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inducted its first rap group, Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five, in 2007. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame has since opened up more room for rap, so in retrospect it seems like less of a calculated bid for relevance (or, to be even more cynical, publicity) and more of an honest attempt to address a glaring void.

The controversy surrounding rap’s inclusion still rages. No such controversy has attended Bowie’s relatively inconspicuous entrance into the Science Fiction And Fantasy Hall Of Fame. That’s not to say that it should; there’s a matter of scale to consider. But even that is symptomatic of just how hard genre literature as a whole continues to struggle for a broader audience—even as wave after wave of crossover successes, from Harry Potter to A Song Of Ice And Fire, are skimmed from the top.

By definition, halls of fame are symbolic and arbitrary. They should never be used as unilateral measures of worth, not that any sane person would be tempted to do so. Still, they send a loud message—and the message EMP is sending this year is mixed. On one hand, it’s great to see Bowie honored, not just as a rock legend or a postmodern chameleon or some other empty cliché, but as an architect of the imagination. On the other hand, this precedent will be squandered if more genre-centric songwriters aren’t routinely inducted into the Science Fiction And Fantasy Hall Of Fame in the future. Great genre writing is great genre writing, regardless of the medium. If there’s room for Frankenstein, there’s room for Funkenstein.