Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning author and music journalist. In his debut title Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Science Fiction Exploded, he explores the weird and wild story of when rock ’n’ roll met the sci-fi world of the 1970s. Jason is also a local bandleader and DJ, and will be spinning music from his book at Denver Public Library Central on July 7, from 2-3 p.m. We caught up with Jason between gigs for a quick chat.
Okay, let’s get this straight right off - is it sci-fi, SF, or science fiction?
In the science fiction community, SF is the preferred abbreviation, while sci-fi is viewed as something kind of infantile or silly in connotation. As in, “Gee whiz, sci-fi!” But when I started writing Strange Stars, I realized I wasn’t writing for just the science fiction community -- and to the world at large, SF means San Francisco, not science fiction. To avoid confusion, I decided to go with sci-fi in both the text and the subtitle of Strange Stars. And overall, I’ve always been rubbed the wrong way by the SF vs. sci-fi thing. There’s a hint of snobbishness and exclusion and even pretentiousness to the insistence on the SF abbreviation -- and even a kind of defensiveness, as if to try to make sci-fi sound more grown-up -- that I wanted to avoid. There are so many important things in the world to debate right now, and how to abbreviate science fiction is not one of them!
I spent the last couple of days reading up on you and science fiction and rock, and Strange Stars can be no one else’s love child. Did you shop the idea around with publishers before committing to the manuscript? How did you end up with Melville House (a div. of Penguin Random House)?
I did shop the idea around to multiple publishers, or to be more precise, my agent did. I kept getting rejections as well as this bit of feedback: This idea is too big, and there’s not a narrative here. They were right; originally Strange Stars was going to cover sci-fi’s influence on popular music from World War II to the present day, and as such, it would have probably read more like an encyclopedia. Ryan Harrington, my editor at Melville House, loved the idea so much that he worked with me to scale it down, and when I decided to focus on the ‘70s, everything fell into place. The book begins in 1969 with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and ends in 1980 with his sequel to that song, “Ashes to Ashes.” Those two songs perfectly bookend the ‘70s and so many other developments in science fiction and music during that decade. Once I focused in that way, Ryan was able to sell the idea to everyone else at Melville House
How did the writing process for Strange Stars differ from your earlier fiction title, Taft 2012?
Although both books required a lot of research, Strange Stars was a much more enjoyable process. Taft 2012 was a very difficult novel to write, as I was trying to aim for this middle ground politically, one that I don’t necessarily feel -- I’m pretty much a rabid socialist, haha. Of course, I was writing Taft 2012 in 2011, when the political climate was very different; taking a strong side and a strong stance now is not something I would think twice about, as the stakes have been raised even higher in the political arena after 2016. In general, Strange Stars was something I was much more passionate about writing, and I’d like to think that shows through.
When I contacted you to set up this interview, I sent you a book recommendation, not being able to resist a little reader’s advisory, suggesting Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera. Then I saw in your The Turnaround Blog interview that in 1976 Paul McCartney tried to recruit Gene Roddenberry to write a story with a plot “sort of like an interplanetary Eurovision” - which Valente’s 2018 title is!
I just want to state for the record that I am a massive Cat Valente fan, and while I haven’t had the chance to read Space Opera yet, I can’t wait. She’s a true genius. The fact that there’s this synchronicity between what I wrote about in Strange Stars and what Cat wrote about in Space Opera is just one of those lovely things.
We’re looking forward to hearing you rock out at Denver Public Library Central - do you have your playlist together yet?
I don’t have a playlist together yet! But I think I I’m going to stick to a few more obscure things as well as a couple more obvious songs, like Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars theme -- since I tell the story of that song in Strange Stars. Also, instead of playing Bowie’s famous version of “Space Oddity,” I think I’ll play my rare record of a cover version from 1969 by an Italian band called Computers -- really, that was the band’s name circa 1969 -- which is just as eerie and beautiful as the original.
Watch for Jason Heller at Central on Saturday, July 7, 2-3 p.m. His latest title, Strange Stars, will be available for sale and signing.