Q&A With Jason Heller About Strange Stars

ROB THORNTON: Would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?

JASON HELLER: I’m a writer, editor, and musician from Denver. I do lots of writing about music and books, including reviews and essay for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and NPR. I’m also the former nonfiction editor for Clarkesworld, and I won a Hugo as part of that editing team in 2013.

Since then, I’ve edited a couple of fiction anthologies, most recently Mechanical Animals with Selena Chambers. I’ve been playing in bands for many years, and my current band is called Weathered Statues. We just toured Europe last fall, and it was pretty amazing to get up from behind the writing desk and hit the road with my guitar!

ROB THORNTON: What inspired you to write a book about the relationship between SF/F and popular music?

JASON HELLER: My first concert was seeing David Bowie in 1987, and at that point, I was already a huge fan of science fiction. I devoured books and music as a kid, and the deeper I got into Bowie, the more I began to pick up on these hints and fragments of futurism and science fiction in the music I heard on the radio, including bands like Rush, Devo, and Parliament.

Years later, after becoming a professional music journalist, I began writing lots of essays about the crossover between my two biggest loves, and in 2015 I started shopping around a book proposal for a history of this crossover. When Bowie died in 2016, I was already in the midst of writing Strange Stars. He was always going to be the central figure in the book, so that heartbreaking loss lit an extra fire under me.

Basically, I’ve always thought that music has never been given due credit for being one of the most fertile and inventive vessels for science fiction concepts and storytelling. In a nutshell, I wanted to set the record straight and show how so many works of popular music should be considered part of the science fiction canon.

Jason Heller

ROB THORNTON: What kind of audience do you envision for the book?

JASON HELLER: I hope that anyone remotely interested in the realms of science fiction or popular music would find something to float their boat in Strange Stars. I tried to walk the pathway between the two as sensitively as I could; I didn’t want to assume that all science fiction lovers are huge music nerds or vice versa (although, of course, many are, myself included).

Of course, I hoped my fellow Bowie fans would be particularly intrigued, but the book is not about Bowie only. Everything from obscure disco to underground punk is covered in Strange Stars, along with the huge artists you might automatically expect, such as Pink Floyd and Rush. I made every attempt to tease out to the bigger picture, the overall narrative arc, that connects everything from Heinlein to Kraftwerk to Star Wars, so there’s a story to be absorbed, not just a guide to great music for people to discover.

ROB THORNTON: How did you decide to use David Bowie’s career as a recurring theme in Strange Stars?

JASON HELLER: If all the musicians who were influenced by science fiction in the ’70s, David Bowie was the most visible, not to mention the most visibly science-fictional. But more than that, his very influential contributions to science-fiction music bookended that decade perfectly; he released his first science-fiction hit single, “Space Oddity,” in 1969, and he released “Ashes to Ashes,” the sequel to “Space Oddity,” in 1980. The ’70s fit perfectly between those songs, and as it turns out, Bowie’s on-off fascination and engagement with science fiction that decade perfectly paralleled so many larger events and trends that were happening in both science and science fiction, as well as in popular music. To use him as the barometer of science fiction rock in the ’70s just felt like the most natural thing I could do. Almost all roads in science fiction music lead either to or from Bowie in the ’70s.

ROB THORNTON: What was it like to work with editors on a book about the intersection of two minutiae-oriented pop cultures?

JASON HELLER: I loved working with my editor at Melville House, Ryan Harrington, who is not only brilliant but also very good at pointing out how my crazy, sprawling idea for a book could be focused into something tighter and more accessible. He helped me immensely when it came to making Strange Stars a book that both music fans and science fiction fans could relate to.

ROB THORNTON: Who was your favorite interview for Strange Stars and why?

JASON HELLER: I actually didn’t interview anyone for Strange Stars! It was all meticulous and exhausting research, including lots of quotes from past interviews with the musicians I covered in the book. Since Bowie died while I was in the process of writing Strange Stars, the possibility of interviewing him was sadly off the table. I figured if I couldn’t interview the main person in this book, it would feel imbalanced if I interviewed many of the lesser figures in my narrative, as important as they each are in their own right.

And it turned out there was simply no shortage of research material out there! As it is, I had to leave out tons of great quotes and anecdotes that weren’t entirely necessary to the story I was telling. If I’d had another few tens of thousands of words of original interview material to incorporate into Strange Stars, it would have vastly exceeded the wordcount my publisher gave me to work with! But I think everything worked out for the best.

ROB THORNTON: What was the most rewarding audio discovery you made while you were writing the book?

JASON HELLER: I made so, so many discoveries while working on Strange Stars. I went into this project thinking I had a pretty deep knowledge of science-fiction-influenced music, but as it turned out, I knew maybe half the story. Of all the musical rabbitholes I went down while researching for the book, the one that delighted me the most was science fiction funk. I’d always known that funk (and disco) were important parts of my story, and I collect funk and disco records from the ’70s, but none of that prepared me for the wealth of groups and artists of the era who contributed to the canon of science-fiction funk, besides the big names we all probably know like Parliament-Funkadelic.

If I had to pick a favorite discovery, it would be the 1979 song “Dark Vader” by Instant Funk. In it, the story of Darth Vader is retold from a sympathetic perspective — remember, this was before the revelations about his character seen a year later in The Empire Strikes Back! — that folds Star Wars fanfic and blaxploitation swagger into Afrofuturism. As I point out in Strange Stars, the song does for Darth Vader what Wicked did for The Wicked Witch of the West decades later.

ROB THORNTON: What surprised you the most during the research for Strange Stars? I was amazed to learn that Ian Curtis wanted to work with Michael Moorcock!

JASON HELLER: That was definitely one of the biggest surprises to me too! It’s hard to imagine what a collaboration between Joy Division and Michael Moorcock would have sounded like, but it’s amazing just to know they actually conversed about the prospect prior to Curtis’ death in 1980. Joy Division are so deeply associated with the bleak futurism (no-futurism?) of the post-punk movement, and Moorcock resides at the other end of the ’70s science-fiction-music spectrum thanks to his close ties to Hawkwind.

The kinship between Curtis and Moorcock is one of those startling little anecdotes I dug up that really tied so much of Strange Stars together for me. Likewise, so did the discovery that Paul McCartney asked Gene Roddenberry to help him write a science fiction musical for Wings in 1975! It never came about, of course, but wow, if only.

ROB THORNTON: How would you describe the relationship between popular music and SF/F?

JASON HELLER: It’s an interesting relationship. Neither popular music nor science fiction/fantasy acknowledge each other that openly. Crossovers pop up all the time — and as I detail in Strange Stars, they were especially rife in the ’70s — but there’s almost an introvert/extrovert dichotomy the two. That’s a massive oversimplification, but I think it does get to the heart of it, in a way.

Music is an openly joyous and collective thing; SF/F, and literature in general, is more intimately and personally experienced. But when the two feed off each other, the results can bring out the best in both. I’ve always wished the SF/F world in particular would pay more attention to the many musicians who struggle to find an audience with their science-fiction music, but I’m just happy people still make such music and pay attention to its rich history at all. Which is why writing Strange Stars was such an honor for me.

3 thoughts on “Q&A With Jason Heller About Strange Stars

  1. This looks great. He knows about Hawkwind which is good. I wouldn’t mind learning more about SF funk. I’ve been getting more into listening to funk music from that time and there’s a lot of really good music. I wonder if the book has much to say about Sun Ra. My local college radio station plays “A Day and Night of the Sun” with 24 hours of Sun Ra’s music every year on Sun Ra’s birthday. So I’ve heard a fair amount of Sun Ra’s music and it’s great stuff.

    On a related note, all the fans who nominated Clipping’s Splendor & Misery for the Hugo, you have my thanks. What a great album. Science-fiction influenced music is very much alive and well.

    I wish Paul S. Williams were still around to be part of this discussion.

  2. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 3/21/19 I’ll File You, My Pixel, And Your Little Scroll Too! | File 770

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