Monday, February 02, 2009

Sci-Fi Pop

Cross-disciplinary science seemed to get all the smart kids back when I was at university - bio-physicists figuring out how eyes worked, bio-chemists doing crazy stuff with peptides, mathematical physicists doing all kinds of things I couldn't understand. This makes sense to an extent - in the phase space of science (a subset of knowledge) each discipline has the parameters of it's search-space mapped out, with the work either being out on the far edge or filling in the gaps. Crossing disciplines creates new fields to work in, extrapolating from the better known disciplines, with the basic work giving proportionally greater results.

Similarly cross-(sub)genre gives us hot new things to read and watch. Naomi Novik's Temeraire series crosses Alternate History with Fantasy to give us the Napoleonic wars substantially improved by the addition of dragons. Crossing Westerns with SF gave us Wild Wild West (both versions) and Firefly. Richard Morgan has been writing SF action-noir while Alistair Reynolds has described one faction in his fiction, the Ultras, as looking like what might happen if Star Trek's Borg had an unhealthy interest with goth culture[1]. And the genre of para-normal romance has given us an enormous oeuvre that I'll talk about some other time, maybe.

Anyway, with crossing things established as a method of creating new and exciting works of science and art, you'd think that maybe Sci-Fi and Pop could get together and help fulfill their mutual promises to each other. I mean pop music is all about now, while science fiction is about the future[2]. They're practically next door neighbours!

As anyone who's bothered to read this far is surely aware, in practice results have been mixed. As and when I remember I add examples to a youtube playlist. Currently there are 10 on the list. Link to List Index. Link to just start the list playing.

1. William Shatner - Rocket Man

Shatner gives his classic interpretation of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's Rocket Man. We're into real Sci-Fi/Pop crossover territory here, as the song is based on a Ray Bradbury short story The Rocket Man. Other versions include Elton John's original and Kate Bush's 1998 cover. This was from 1978, a year we will return to later. I give this 6 Rocketships.

2. Jonathan Coulton - Chriron Beta Prime

Jonathan Coulton, a singer/songwriter who makes a living by giving his music away for free on the internet, has written many in-genre songs, often from the point of view of the villains, such as the zombie[3] in Re: Your Brains and the evil supervillain in Skullcrusher Mountain. I think this song probably is the most SF of his songs that I've found for free on the internet[4]. It references a lot of cliches, but at the end of the day is it's own vision of the aftermath of a robot uprising. 8 Rocketships.

3. Zager and Evans - In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)

I think I first heard this song on a flight between Auckland and London, somewhere over Kazakhstan. Not being in the most normal state of mind I missed quite how mad this religion themed technological cautionary tale is. Later I found myself watching Cleopatra 2525, and realised that the theme tune was a complete rip-off an homage to this 1969 one hit wonder and tracked down the original. From the wikipedia page I've discovered one possible reason why this was a one hit wonder; their follow up song appears to have been called "Mr Turnkey" and is "a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the wall as punishment for his crime". Surely the kids in 1969 were down with rape, guilt, despair and self-harm? Anyway there's some good news or at least some news; you can judge for yourself.

Further down the wikipedia page I discover this quote from the authors of The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time - "science fiction and rock and roll don't mix any better than Zsa Zsa Gabor and reality". What can they mean? No really. Are they saying Zsa Zsa's not real? 5 Rocketships.

4. Sir Killalot vs Robo Babe - Android Love (Robot Wars)

This appears to be a spin off single from the TV robot-fighting show, Robot Wars. I think Jim suggested this. It combines catchphrases and robots from the show with some synth-dance and scantily clad women. I am unimpressed. 2 Rocketships.

5. The She Creatures - Sexy Robot

Another suggestion from Jim, and this time it's brilliant! I believe he missed The She Creatures twice at Glastonbury, but met them giving out pamphlets, in full costume. I have a soft spot the size of Ganymede for girl-pop from before I was born and this is an excellent facsimile. Simply for the line "You can spend your whole lifespan searching these solar systems for a man like Harrison Ford, but he don't exist" I give them 9 Rocketships.

6. Man or Astroman - Lo Batt

Man or Astroman combine surf guitar with samples from old B-movies, usually to great effect. This doesn't seem to have been one of their better songs. Why is this on youtube and the list ahead of "Invasion of the Dragonmen" or "Maximum Radiation Level"? I don't know, and frankly have done so much research for this post already that my brain is melting. Good video though. A mere 5 Rocketships.

7. The Only Ones - Another Girl, Another Planet

From 1978 we find that punk rock too flirts with SF. And why shouldn't it? The comic book style video and references to space travel being in their blood makes this Sci-Fi enough for me. It's a great and classic piece of new wave pop. 7 Rocketships.

8. Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip - I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper

Our final visit to 1978 and here we have the single that launched Sarah Brightman's career. It's a delirious blend of Sci-Fi cliches and disco madness, with dancing and costumes that boggle the mind. Is it brilliant or bonkers? Is it too much to have both? And it's still relevant, or at least a DJ played it in a club I was in last year, which is good enough for me. 9 Rocketships.

9. Stingray Megamix

Back in 1990 Jim got a video[5] called Power Themes 90, which had dance remixes of things like The Prisoner and UFO and MC Parker doing some Thunderbirds DJing. My favourite is the Stingray Megamix, which mixes scenes and music from Stingray to make a very satisfying song. One side effect has been that if Stingray ever comes on TV, we have to do the dance on the sofa. Despite this, I award this track the coveted 10 Rocketships.

10. Stereolab - Wow and Flutter

Stereolab are sometimes described as a Marxist band, but they prefer to point to Surrealist and Situationalist movements. Noone seems to have picked up on their SF influences, perhaps because this video is the most blatant example and everywhere else it's hinted at. For example on their album Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements the back cover notes:
Art is a science having more than seven variables.

And hi-fi is the convenient tag we use when we mean the art and science of hi-fidelity! Interest in this fascinating subject has never run higher than it does today : its technology advances steadily, and many more people come to value and draw inspiration from the result a high standard of music reproduction in the home. Stereolab contribute to this in no small measure.

You can read this as just another odd, surreal, note on the album. You can read it as a Marxist statement if you want to. But it looks to me like it could have dropped out of a 50s SF story. 7 Rocketships for this final entry.

This has been my Sci-Fi/Pop 10 songs. They're not a Top 10, or my favourite 10, or the best 10, or anything like that; they're 10 strong examples of the cross-genre that happen to be on youtube that I've compiled into a list. Have I missed anything obvious? Do you hate me for exposing you to this? Disagree with my scores? Have a request? That's what the button below is for.

[1] I'd totally watch that film. I'd suggest reading his books too.
[2] Elsewhere people who might know something about this are even now arguing that SF is actually about now, or, considering the turn-around times involved in writing and publishing, about 15 months ago.
[3] Surely if "zombies" is the plural, the singular should be "zomby".
[4] Youtube is my jukebox!
[5] On a VHS cassette! Remember them?

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