The mothership connection is clear: Where there’s rock ’n’ roll, science fiction isn’t far away, as Hugo Award winner Jason Heller deftly demonstrates in “Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.”
The author was born in 1972, a couple of months after David Bowie’s landmark album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” appeared. That wasn’t Bowie’s first foray into sci-fi; as Heller notes, his career is bracketed and punctuated by tunes devoted to the intrepid Major Tom, who ends up a skeleton encased in a spacesuit with Bowie’s 2015 farewell album, “Blackstar.” It’s a good thing Bowie was on the case, writes the author, for Pink Floyd wasn’t going to get the interplanetary job done, and Neil Young, despite the sci-fi-born “doomsday, time-travel, space-ark” album “After the Gold Rush,” was pretty well earthbound. There’s a lot of yes, but hedging as Heller assembles his catalog of sci-fi rock: ELP may not have been thinking outer-spacey thoughts with “Tarkus,” which, “for all its highbrow musicianship … is hardly the stuff of classic sci-fi,” and X-Ray Spex was more tuned to pop culture than cyberia when Poly Styrene got to caterwauling about the Bionic Man. Still, it’s clear the author has listened to a vast assemblage of music, and readers who don’t know the foundation stories of P-Funk and Devo, Gong and Hawkwind, Kraftwerk and Jefferson Starship, and a whole host of lysergic-and-Asimov-soaked bands will find his tales to be both entertaining and instructive. His explorations sound just the right note, too, as when he unpacks the Deep Purple tune “Space Truckin’” to find in it “in essence, Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’ recast for outer-space Hell’s Angels.” Though the thesis can be a little wobbly once taken outside of the 1970s — Chuck Berry didn’t hitch his Caddy to a star, after all, and Elvis, though Martian, was resolutely terrestrial — the book holds up well to argument.
Sci-fi geeks with a penchant for rock ’n’ stomp, prog excess and other flavors of pop will enjoy this one.
(Heller will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. June 25 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
A bold cult-classic stew
A feisty young anthropologist discovers a secret civilization of mechanical souls in Daniel H. Wilson’s “The Clockwork Dynasty.”
Wilson continues his obsession with intelligent machines in this ambitious fantasy, melding the real-life past with a secret history of seemingly immortal mechanical beings who call themselves avtomat: “Maybe the closest analogue in English is the word robot.” The book opens as young June Stefanov listens to her grandfather’s memory of a mechanical soldier he encountered at Stalingrad. “There are strange things in the world, June,” he says. “Things older than we know. Walking with the faces of men … there are angels among us.” From here, the book pivots between grown-up June, who seeks out mechanical antiquities on behalf of the shadowy Kunlun Foundation, and Peter Alexeyvich and Elena Petrova, two mechanical beings resurrected in Moscow circa 1709 by Giacomo Favorini, the last mechanician of Czar Peter the Great. Both tales are thrilling and very different. Peter’s form is that of a young man, while his “sister” Elena looks like a 12-year-old girl. After the czar dies, the two are forced to flee to London, where Peter takes up arms as a soldier of fortune and Elena finds a way to live her long life in the body of a child. Back in the present day, June is hunted by Talus Silferström, enforcer for an ancient avtomat called Leizu, before being rescued by Peter, who is a pivotal character in a war between warring steampunk leviathans. This bold adventure is a stew of cult-classic concepts — the avtomat reflect the Immortals in the “Highlander” franchise, while the ancient and deadly Elena is reminiscent of child vampire Claudia in “Interview With the Vampire.” It may wear its influences on its sleeve, but it’s also a welcome treat for steampunk and fantasy fans.
“The Clockwork Dynasty” has a thrilling mix of influences, much like Sylvain Neuvel’s “Sleeping Giants” and HBO’s “Westworld,” that creates a captivating scenario begging for many sequels.
(Wilson will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. June 28 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
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