by Alessio Barettini
Space Oddity is a song that doesn’t need any presentations, obviously, but that also represents a good link between music and sci-fi literature. Above all, the dialogical structure of the song lets us consider the existence of a plot. Storytelling is, at that time in Bowie’s career, a constant, a necessity, a project, and even an imposition from which escaping will later become necessary.
Space Oddity is a story that terminated, even if its unique epilogue suggests many different interpretations and possible paths that not even Bowie had anticipated.The absence of gravity is what caused Tom’s end and his disappearance into space. His end is what we think about him, when we can no longer see him: we lost sight of Tom and can only imagine him in a different way. Bowie doesn’t give us anything else, and at the same time he allows for endless epilogues. He forces us to participate, this time. We are no longer just the audience of the songs he performs for us, like those of his first album. We are actively involved now. The narrator describes the setting, introduces us to Major Tom, and leaves us alone with him. Our attention gradually shifts from Ground Control to Tom and his untimely end.
The song is interesting in many different ways, some of which I will analyze as they emerge: first of all the lexical references to the world of science-fiction: the engines, the protein pills, the helmet, the count-down. All of these elements place us instantaneously into an imaginary spaceship that is taking off. Everything is revealed through the communication between the astronaut and Ground Control. We hear Hope, God’s Love, and a prayer.
Then, a change of scenery. We suddenly find ourselves above the world. We are still inside the spaceship, but we are no longer on the launch base, for we are being propelled into space. Ground Control gives the OK, confirming that the Major is at his first flight experience–something that he himself couldn’t believe at all. The word used is “grade” [You’ve really made the grade], as in “higher level” or “better quality”, and it has the same root of the word “graduation”. The difference between Earth and space is immense, at all levels. The metaphor is evident. Ground Controls talks about the press and their greed for news, ready to write even about Tom’s shirts. Tomorrow everybody will know about Tom’s feat. We have no doubt about the success of this space mission. Moreover, Ground Control seems to emphasize the relevance of the mission using the verb “to dare”: “Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare”, for the newspapers will talk about it, and recognize the efforts made to achieve such astonishing results.
Then the point of view changes. We find ourselves inside the Major’s head while he describes what that moment feels like. We experience it with him. We are with him at the very moment when he passes through the door, while he floats in that most peculiar way, and when he realizes that the stars look so different from above. We perceive what it is like to sit inside a “tin can”, with him: strangely, Bowie could not think of a better place for his Major, and resorted to use the same term that identifies what we buy at the supermarket. Anyway, we experience the same remoteness that’s affecting Major Tom, the same feelings when he realizes that there’s nothing to do up there other than looking at the blue of the planet Earth.
We are still following Tom’s perspective. We are miles and miles away, but we feel safe: Tom himself states that he’s feeling very still. We also feel it, the same reassuring rocking motion generated by the absence of gravity. There’s no need to fear, the spaceship knows which way to go. We know that for sure. There are words for his wife that perhaps can be read as a farewell, especially after watching the clip in the video that shows Bowie kidnapped by two sexy aliens, but we can just see the message as a homage for his curious public, or as a sincere expression of love, like a postcard sent from a far away place on holidays.
But suddenly, everything collapses. Maybe at that very moment, maybe an instant later, we are startled by the voice of Ground Control, not an answer, but a call: an emergency. Ground Control is trying to connect with the astronaut, but he lost the signal. Something went wrong, the communication is dead. We just have the time to hear Major Tom’s voice once again, repeating what he was saying before, recalling his sensations and feelings, with the differences that he cannot longer hear us, and that the spaceship is now above the moon, but once again, there’s nothing he can do, and there nothing we can do as well.
It’s evident that the reference is to scenes of 2001 A space odissey, the Stanley Kubrick’s cult movie that Bowie ammitted to have watched several times in that summer of ’68 when it came out. And when Space Oddity came to life. We have that scene, in front of our eyes: the astronaut outside the door of the ship, there, at the beginning of deep space. He was put there from a machine that was taking the power. In Space oddity it’s something different: something is going wrong. There is a branch of science-fiction in literature that warns us about risks of travelling into space. It gave us an advice to reflect on the sense of that colonization war that moved around big themes of Cold War. But we should think about it, even after all that. Why sending men into space should be a happy moment? Is it right to push ourselves beyond, if we still don’t know how to live here? It maybe seems pretentious believing that Space Oddity is referring to that (even if the catastrophical ending of Major Tom’s deed would prove it). But it’s clear that Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated man keeps this meditation through a lot of short stories that are central in this way of seeing.
There are three short stories in which it’s easier to recognize some of the ideas from which Bowie built the history of Major Tom. Let’s see them.
The rocket man
This novel moves around a family in which the father is an astronaut, in a time in which the astronaut is a job like the commercial agent. He moves away for months, on different planets, and then he comes back, stays at home for a while, and then he leaves again. Nothing unusual. So it seems. But normal balance can just be remembered. Since the father keeps on moving up and down, things have changed. His wife can not consider anything normal, by now. She sees him changed, she even has to consider him dead, or all as a nostalgy, in order not to suffer too much. He, on his side, when he’s far from home thinks about home, but when he’s at home he thinks of space. To their 14 years old son remains the mission to interpretate and to understand.
“Ah,” he sighed, “this is it.” His eyes were gently closed; he lay on his back, drinking
the sun. “You miss this,” he said.
He meant “on the rocket” of course.
The novel is full of a feeling of pride. The astronaut really loves his job, and knows how to be loved for what he does. And he’d walk away down the street, not taking a helicopter or beetle or bus, just walking with his uniform hidden in his small underarm case; he didn’t want anyone to think he was vain about being a Rocket Man. But central feeling is death consciousness, anyway. The astronaut desires that his son will not follow his own traces. But maybe he has already decided, and when the news of his disappearing arrives, the son/narrator can not be surprised.
“Promise me you won’t be like me,” he said.
I hesitated awhile. “Okay,” I said.
He shook my hand. “Good boy,” he said.
At last I said, “How many ways are there to die in space?”
“The meteors hit you. The air goes out of your rocket. Or comets take you along with them. Concussion. Strangulation. Explosion. Centrifugal force. Too much acceleration. Too little. The heat, the cold, the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, the asteroids, the planetoids, radiation . . .”
“And do they bury you?”
“They never find you.”
“Where do you go?”
“A billion miles away. Traveling graves, they call them. You become a meteor or a planetoid traveling forever through space.”
I said nothing.
This story begins with the moment that in the song is the breakdown. The first concussion cut the rocket up the side with a giant can opener. The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish. They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun.
The characters talk to each other. They calculate, consider, go toward their own destinies. Each of them takes different directions, but the feeling is the same.
Hollis thought of it with a queer abstraction of mind. He seemed to be removed from his body, watching it fall down and down through space, as objective as he had been in regard to the first falling snowflakes of a winter season long gone.
The others were silent, thinking of the destiny that had brought them to this, falling, falling, and nothing they could do to change it.
The sense of disorientation is complete. It is described precisely. We can easily imagine that Major Tom would feel the same too. At this point. The story hangs on those dialogues, and on the slow consciousness of the tragedy moving, and the different reactions of the characters: the hate, the terror, the will of talking, the pride of a well-spent life, the need for reflection, the conscience of absurd and of fugacity, the poorness and the will of not being slave of pettiness.
Great poetry of this novel and Bradbury’s ability are in the end. Hollis has remained alone, too far from the others to talk again with them. He goes on reflecting on sense of pettiness that wraps him and doesn’t leave him to feel free. He’s moving towards the Earth. His direction is a coming back destined to burn in the atmosphere.
“I wonder,” he said, “if anyone’ll see me?”
The small boy on the country road looked up and screamed. “Look, Mom, look! A falling star!”
The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois.
“Make a wish,” said his mother. “Make a wish.”
Kaleidoscope is a history that leaves us imagine that the destiny of the astronat lost in space will follow for ever.
No particular night or morning
In this other novel we analyze, the main character is called Hitchcock. He’s hitten by a deep depression that puts him in the condition to doubt on the existence of any thing. It says that it is one of the possible effects of being into space for the first time. Like a bad hangover with an headache, and the thought of the Earth to come over that. But his terror doesn’t end with that. And he lives inside a strange kind of amnesy, that keeps him in the condition of not being sure on the existence of even he doesn’t see. Clemens is the collegue that tries to make him come back to reason. But every logic is swollen by a bigger reflection. He compares memories to porcupines: they make us suffer, so we can not live into them.
This one is a novel about solypsism: the only things that exist are the ones I can see. In this way I can live just for what I can see. The food too, after having eaten it rapidly, becomes nothing. With these kind of thoughts, even the stars become too far, impossible to touch, and so inexistent and unrecognizible. So, when Clemens tries to find a point of contact with his mind asking him the reason of his travelling in space, Hitchcock answers that:
“Mostly it was space. So much space. I liked the idea
of nothing on top, nothing on the bottom, and a lot of nothing in between, and me in the middle of the nothing.”
Clemens can just take act with the psychiatrist and the other men of the crew that he is going to be worse. The isolation grows in a exponencial way, supported from too logical reasons that seems madness. Nothing exists, he says, just the Action, but when it ends there is nothing that can prove to anybody the propriety and the existence of that action. So, also physical pain becomes a transitory experience. The only reality that remains is living among the stars. But travelling with that rocket is too little.
“Hitchcock snapped out of it for a minute or so. He was alone. He climbed into a space suit. He opened an airlock. Then he walked out into space-alone.”
Space, thought Clemens. The space that Hitchcock loved so well. Space, with nothing on top, nothing on the bottom, a lot of empty nothings between, and Hitchcock falling in the middle of the nothing, on his way to no particular night and no particular morning…
So Hitchcok finds the sense of his exictence just letting himself go alone into deep space. The space itself becomes a metaphor of the utero in which he chooses to come back, leaving everything behind.
Space Oddity is a propedeutical song, a bildungsroman song, an initatical ritual that completes its sense with the growth of Bowie as an artist. Bowie is Major Tom in the moment in which he is leaving for his career which is at the beginning. He’s leaving up like the rocket. For this success he has to leave something behind his shoulders. Whatever it is, we don’t know. We can guess: Robert Jones? The memory of his father? Life of province? The illusions of youth and purity? The answer doesn’t exist. Any answer can be good and it is possible to talk about that, and trying to understand. He himself has always known. We couldn’t, at the actual state of things.
The quotatios of Ray Bradbury’s short stories are taken from The Illustrated Man.