- The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of Science Fiction Film by Trace Reddell
The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of Science Fiction Film
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018: 479pp.
The Sound of Things to Come is an ambitious project and clearly a labour of love for its author, Trace Reddell, who generally addresses his topic in an approachable and engaging way. The book has a double agenda. On the one hand it is, as its title indicates, a historical survey of the role played by sound in science fiction film from the ‘silent’ era to 1989 (Reddell is already planning a follow-up volume to pick up where this book leaves off), looking at a range of around thirty films that are already acknowledged as significant in the development of science fiction cinema and its sound. On the other hand, he also sets out to be ‘the first to draw these films into a general theory of sound in the science fiction film’ (p.39), and this is where the ambition and challenge of the project lies. The central idea of this general theory is that of the sonic novum, a concept developed from Darko Suvin’s discussions of science fiction literature. The novum is a device that identifies and embodies the ‘strange newness’ (Suvin 1979, p.3, in Reddell, p.14) at the heart of a science fiction text, the narrative and thematic elements that speculatively point to the idea of the future. Reddell seeks to expand this idea of the novum to include the various sonic objects of science fiction film, but in particular he identifies the sonic novum lying quite specifically in the ‘actual, technical innovations in means, methods, and materials for creating and reproducing sounds’ (p.9) meaning that his sonic novum is both speculative, in the same way that the literary text’s novum would be, but also intimately connected to the material means of production. He therefore places a strong emphasis in his discussions of film soundtracks and scores on ‘the capacity of electronic tonalities [timbres] to construct the self-referencing noise worlds and alien sonorous objects’ (p.17), but equally he is concerned with the way that the sonic novum does ‘more than figuratively represent the new, unusual and alien elements of narrative [… and] also points to the unfamiliar set of material objects, resources and new sound-making processes and practices at the source of these sounds’, with the result that the nature of the sonic novum ‘oscillates […] between speculation about technology and formal experimentation and innovation with technology’ (p.18). It is a genuinely useful conceptualisation of both the nature and development of science fiction sound that [End Page 99] allows the two agendas of the overall project to be brought together by tracking technological developments against the chronology of the films.
The examination of the use of the theremin in early science fiction scores is the exemplar of how a sound both operates speculatively in pointing to strange and alien technologies, and is simultaneously a new and rather strange sonic technology in its own right. Moving into the 1960s and 1970s, the sonic novum is sometimes rather more difficult to identify, and this is particularly evident in the third chapter that examines 1959–1968. Within this, he examines Barbarella, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Planet of the Apes (all three from 1968) and goes to some lengths to position these as a coherent group around the ideas of psychedelia and Guattari’s notion of different categories of hypersensitivity (2011, p.10, in Reddell, pp.248–249). It does all feel a bit of a stretch at times: it is relatively difficult to reconcile the psychedelic with the sound of either 2001 or Planet of the Apes. Reddell effectively sidesteps the idea of the sonic novum altogether in 2001 and focuses instead on a series of points around Alex North’s abandoned score and the differences between Arthur C. Clarke’s original intentions for the screenplay and Kubrick’s final film.
In the final two chapters, covering the period from 1971...