Science fiction you can listen to: The New Worlds Weekly Playlist, Volume I

Gautham Shenoy February 17, 2017 6 min

Friends, including Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears. Or rather, lend an ear to the songs that follow. For science fiction isn’t just something you can just read or watch, but something that you can listen to as well. As these songs will attest to. So plug in your headphones, earphones or speakers, as the case may be, and enjoy these songs.

Of course, there are a lot more science fiction songs than are on this volume, so the concept albums, those from movies and theme songs will appear in subsequent volumes of the NWW Playlist. Also missing from this list, for obvious reasons, are songs that just use the words, ‘space’ (and the loneliness of it thereof), ‘alien’ or ‘robot’ without telling a SF-nal story or at least a hint of it. So, without further ado, here are five science fictional songs from classic rockers, in no particular order.

1. David Bowie: ★

Pronounced Blackstar, and taken from 2015 album of the same name by David Bowie, a man not unfamiliar to sci-fi fans, music lovers or readers of NWW. The story of Major Tom, the fictional astronaut who was introduced in Bowie’s 1969 hit Space Oddity, ends here. After drifting in his tin can far above the world and thousands of miles away, we finally see his journey end on a strange planet, his skull encrusted with jewels somewhere along the way. Picked up by an alien woman, this relic then becomes the object of worship for the people of this planet, while the rest of his bones drift space-bound to a star. While the song itself is trippy — part-rock, part-jazz, part-blues — another bonus is the surreal short film that masquerades as the music video for this song.

And speaking of bonuses, here’s the original 1969 video for Space Oddity, which isn’t quite the same song most of us are familiar with, but is just as good.

2. Black Sabbath: Iron Man

No, this song from one of the most influential bands of all time has nothing to do with the Marvel superhero, even though Tony Stark is a Black Sabbath fan and may have retroactively named his alter-ego after the song was used in the Iron Man movie (novelisations, I tell you!). The song — from Black Sabbath’s 1970 album Paranoid — is in fact a classic example of the Bootstrap Paradox of time travel, and is about a person who time travels into the future. Since the full story has been told before in this column, just go right ahead and listen to the classic right away. Probably one of the most killer riffs this side of future.

If you like the song, you might also want to listen to the version that the band included in their 1998 album Reunion, which won them their first Grammy (for Best Metal Performance) plus the cover played by Metallica when inducting Black Sabbath into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

3. Elton John: Rocket Man

A ballad set in a time when space workers are in demand and going to Mars is routine for the titular Rocket Man (She packed my bags last night pre-flight; Zero hour nine am), this songs is considered to be one of the greatest songs recorded. Inspired by the Ray Bradbury short story of the same name from his book The Illustrated Man, this classic song has a piece of advice for parents — Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. Keep that in mind before signing up for a one-way family trip to Mars.

4. Queen: 39

Brian May, the guitarist who gave up a career in astrophysics to become a musician, and who wrote this song, calls it a “sci-fi folk song”. Featuring in the band’s fourth album, A Night at the Opera, 39 tells the poignant story of a group of astronauts who ‘For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas; Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried’. But cry they do, when they return just a year later. A year for them, but a hundred for those they left behind. Because, due to time dilation, travelling as they were at relativistic speeds, the astronaut finds that the earth that he knew no longer exists, all family and friends are long dead, and only the grandchildren remain. His life still lies ahead of him. “Pity me,” he says, as he notes of his grandchild, “Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me.”

5. Rush: 2112

This epic 20-minute and 33-second song from the super-influential Canadian rock band Rush, from the 1976 album of the same name, is a seven-part suite — Overture, The Temples Of Syrinx, Discovery, Presentation, Oracle: The Dream, Soliloquy and Grand Finale — that occupied one whole side of the album (back when albums had sides and not sequential MP3s!).
The song is set in the year 2112 in a world controlled by the ‘Priests of the Temple of Syrinx’, 60 years after a galaxy-wide war has consolidated all power under the rule of the Red Star of the Solar Federation. Books, music, work and play all looked after by the benevolent Wisdom of the Priests. In this world, a man makes a discovery of an ancient pre-war relic — a guitar that he learns to play. Elated he makes a presentation of it to the Priests only to be castigated; his instrument ground to splinters. For, this instrument is but a silly whim that doesn’t fit the plan, he’s told.

Dejected, the man is confronted by an Oracle, who tells him of the elder race that will come to tear the Temples down. In the penultimate part, the man in despair gives himself to death, unable to live in the Federation any longer, with its cold and empty life. And as he dies, the pronouncement is heard, “Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control.” The elder race returns.

I’m perhaps not doing full justice to the story, but here’s the solution, below. The entire song with the music video in the form of a gorgeous motion comic — one of the panels of which is the lead image above — illustrated by the artist Tom Hodges, that tells the story, contains the lyrics and then some.

That’s it for Volume I.

Any list, especially on a highly subjective topic like music, is bound to be coloured by one’s own tastes, influences, knowledge and exposure. So, in case you think there is any science fictional song that deserves to be in this volume, do let us know. Leave us a comment below or tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD. On that note, happy listening! Live long and Prosper! And I hope to see you here again next Friday as we explore a little bit more of this all-pervasive thing we call SF.


Updated at 10.45am on February 20, 2017, to correct the name of David Bowie's song from 'Darkstar' to 'Blackstar'.
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