“Star Wars” started young Jason Heller down a familiar path.
The Denver-based writer was 5 in 1977, when his grandmother took him to see movie in a theater she managed in Florida. He became obsessed.
In fact, when the youngster heard the disco version of the “Star Wars” theme on the radio months later, he had to have it.
“It wasn’t just that there was this disco version of ‘Star Wars’ that you could dance to around your bedroom — which I did,” he said. “Here was a way to use this piece of music, along with one’s own imagination, and combine them to relive the movie.”
Heller grew up to become a science fiction writer and music critic, and he recently combined his interests to write “Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.”
He’ll be at Octavia Books at 6 p.m. Saturday for a book signing and interview with writer Michael Patrick Welch.
In the book, Heller combs through the music of the 1970s for what he considered science fiction songs and sorts out their roots and meaning. “Star Wars” helped him decide on that time frame because the phenomenon that followed the movie affected American pop culture for the rest of the decade.
“‘Star Wars’ took science fiction out of the realm of the fringes and plopped it squarely in the middle of mainstream America, where it became something so trendy and so universally embraced that any kind of musician could profit from associating himself with science fiction,” Heller said.
After “Star Wars,” rocker Neil Young toured with his roadies dressed as jawas from the movie, and “Star Wars” created a market for such television shows as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”
David Bowie gives “Strange Stars” its starting and ending points. His “Space Oddity” predated Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon by a week in 1969, and 1980s' “Ashes to Ashes” revisited Major Tom, the astronaut in “Space Oddity,” who has fallen on hard times.
Those bookends encompass a decade that began with great optimism about the future and ended with 1984 looming just over the horizon. Heller sees Bowie’s work in the decade reflecting some of that change, from the epic sweep of “Life on Mars?” to the dystopian movie “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
“There really is a complete portrait out there of Bowie as a science fiction fan and artist that runs a whole lot deeper than a kooky guy who liked kooky stuff,” Heller said. The more he thought about Bowie’s work in the 1970s through the lens of science fiction, the more comfortable he became with his assessment of Bowie as a science fiction writer.
One of the central challenges Heller faced was deciding what counted as “science fiction music.” He felt the whole book would be a fraud without jazz composer Sun Ra because his entire output was based on space, science fiction and the future, but he generally steered away from jazz because it involved a different set of aesthetic concerns. He considered using the sound of a song to determine what is or isn’t science fiction, but only a few cases like the German electronic band Kraftwerk had a truly futuristic sound.
Instead, Heller focused on lyrics, even if they’re word soup as in the case of T. Rex’s “Planet Queen.” Heller draws attention to the song in “Strange Stars” on the strength of the title and the line “Flying saucer take me away” because they are common in the band’s output.
T. Rex’s Marc Bolan made no secret of his love of J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and his lyrics often read like they were written by someone who read “The Hobbit” while listening to Bob Dylan. Bowie’s “Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” shared thematic concerns and plot points with Robert Heinlein’s novel “A Stranger in a Strange Land,” but the connection between rock and science fiction were rarely so solid. Songwriters often simply employed science fiction’s imagery as a way of positioning their songs on the cultural cutting edge.
Today, Heller hears traces of science fiction in electronic dance music and the work of Janelle Monae, whose debut album was titled “The Archandroid.”
“She pays attention to the canon of science fiction literature and science fiction music,” Heller said. “She’s synthesizing those in a totally new way, yet familiar enough to make it on the pop charts.”
WHEN: 6 p.m., Saturday, July 28
WHERE: Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St., New Orleans
INFO: octaviabooks.com, (504) 899-7323