The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film - Trace Reddell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018


By Andy Birtwistle

In this ambitious and thought-provoking book, Trace Reddell sets himself the task of writing a history of science fiction film that focuses on the role played by sound within the genre. The key concept by which he navigates his history of science fiction cinema is the sonic novum, an alternative term for what might otherwise be described as “science fictional sounds” (p. 18). Drawing on a concept developed within science fiction studies by Darko Suvin, Reddell explains, “the Novum is an analogic and metaphorical device used to identify the fictive newness at the core of a SF text’s narrative and thematic extrapolations” (p. 8). Conceptualizing film sound in terms of sonic objects, Reddell applies the notion of the novum to the film soundtrack, proposing that “the sonic objects of SF films are speculative constructions involved in the imaginary production of the futuristic and alien” (p. 8) – hence the book’s title, The Sound of Things to Come.

Reddell’s concept of the sonic novum is well placed to set in motion a number of the key critical and historical dynamics of science fiction, which is to say it is a genre that proposes a vision of the future that is always fundamentally anchored in the present. Hence the fascination within film studies with what science fiction might tell us about contemporary society, politics, economics, technology, culture, and so on. As time passes, these past visions of the future serve as one means by which to navigate and investigate the history of the genre and the various ways in which it has drawn on music and sound design to signal the otherness of the future, the alien, and the cosmic. To take one notable example, explored at length by Reddell, within the context of the science fiction soundtrack, alterity has frequently been signaled through the use of electronic instruments. Thus the sound of the theremin became a defining feature of Hollywood science fiction soundtracks in the 1950s. Many of the sonic resources drawn upon by composers working in science fiction to signal the alien – including atonal music and serial music – were in fact already old news by the time they were taken up by the film industry. Nevertheless, they served to articulate otherness in the narrative worlds of science fiction cinema. As Reddell argues, “The SF film is not simply a mediator of sonic activities otherwise relegated to an underground avant-garde, sneaking them into popular culture. Rather, SF cinema provides a site of avant-popular hybridity that facilitates forces of newness and difference on its own terms” (p. 18). After a while, of course, these once noisy, undomesticated sonic resources become familiar, conventional, and even hackneyed, prompting filmmakers, composers, and sound designers to find new ways to express notions of otherness and newness through sound.

In each of the book’s five chapters Reddell listens to a selected group of science fiction films to hear the way in which the construction of the sonic novum has changed over time, while at the same time exploring the relationship between film sound and consciousness through the framework of what he terms “sonic psychotechnologies.” Drawing on the work of Hugo Münsterberg, Béla Balázs, Friedrich Kittler, Gilles Deleuze, and others, Reddell considers the ways in which particular moments in the history of science fiction cinema offer a way of thinking about the relationship between the listening subject and technology, whether this be the technology of sound production (e.g. the theremin), reproduction (e.g. surround sound cinema) or technology more generally. This strand of analysis enables Reddell to offer some valuable insights into cinema’s use of sound, as for example where he discusses the ways in which, during the 1970s, surround sound cinema constructed the audio-spectator as a listening subject and how this positioning of the audience related to the thematic and narrative concerns of science films made in this period. 

One of the strengths of Reddell’s book is the fact that it examines individual films emerging from a range of national and production contexts. While this sometimes means that Reddell has a disparate body of work to consider within the critical and thematic frameworks offered by each chapter, it nevertheless provides a welcome change to the focus on North American popular cinema that has tended to dominate the literature on science fiction film. In the first chapter of the book, which examines the origins of sonic science fiction, Reddell opens with an analysis of the Soviet film Aelita (Yakov Protazanov, 1924) before then moving on to the more familiar territory of Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) and Things To Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936). Somewhat disappointingly, however, Reddell’s analysis of Aelita is limited to a brief discussion of the film’s narrative (in which a radio operator receives mysterious radio signals from Mars), its marketing campaign, “which included a series of radio spots that sounded like the broken code of interplanetary communications chatter” (p. 47), and the fact that the score for the film (now lost) was created by a composer of popular music. As tantalizing as these snippets of information may be, they provide slim pickings for Reddell’s analysis, raising the question of why he felt it necessary to include them in the book at all. In a pattern that is repeated throughout The Sound of Things to Come, Reddell leans quite heavily on the work of other writers in his brief discussion of Aleita; while this assures the reader of the author’s scholarly engagement with existing literature, it occasionally makes it difficult to detect Reddell’s own voice and to understand exactly where his original insights lie. The brief analysis of Aelita is followed by a discussion of Metropolis, focusing in particular on the film’s original score by Gottfried Huppertz. However, as Reddell points out, “not much in the original score actually signifies science fiction” (p. 50). Alongside close readings of case study examples, the chapter hosts a discussion of the ways in which the sonic palette of Western art music was expanded in the first half of the twentieth century through the work of composers such as Luigi Russolo, George Antheil, Arseny Avraamov, John Cage, and others, and concludes with a section on electric instrumental sound. This chapter gets the book off to something of a slow start, with Reddell retrospectively describing it as a “prehistory of sonic science fiction proper” (p. 84), as it is dealing with sometimes familiar material that might be better located, in condensed form, in the book’s Introduction. 

Chapter Two deals with what many would consider to be the classical era of the science fiction film. The 1950s not only spawned American classics, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951), It Came From Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953) and Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956), but also the Japanese film Gojira (Ishirō Honda, 1954), better known in the West as Godzilla. Reddell’s starting point here is to consider the ways in which the electronic sounds heard in these films are located between musical score and diegetic sound and in particular on the way these sounds function atmospherically to create the new spaces of the science fiction film. It is here that Reddell’s notion of the sonic novum generates ideas around technology that begin to offer new perspectives on science fiction sound. Thinking through the ways in which technology mediates experience, Reddell writes of the use of the Sonovox – a forerunner of the Vocoder – in George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950): “The Sonovox sequence is not so much about cosmic difference per se as it is about our perception of difference through mediating technical forms. That is, even as the Sonovox gives voice to an experience of awe and wonder, it confirms technology’s total permeation of our place in the cosmos” (p. 105). This consideration of the relationship between the thematic concerns of particular case study films and the material technology employed in their production and exhibition produces some highly original and thought-provoking insights into material that has already been the subject of extensive research. In this way Reddell manages to offer a fresh perspective on Louis and Bebe Barron’s much discussed electronic score for Forbidden Planet. According to Bebe,[1] the Barrons conceptualized the handcrafted electronics used to create the score for the film as primitive organisms with a life cycle of their own. Drawing on the cybernetic theory that had first inspired the couple to craft their own sound generating electronic circuitry, Reddell writes “here I am interested in their production of the Forbidden Planet score less as an endeavor in music making, however unconventional, than an experiment in sonic cybernetics that stages an actual alien encounter” (p. 167). Thus Reddell recasts the cybernetic circuits produced by the Barrons as a form of biomedia, their presence on the soundtrack echoing and articulating the key themes of alien encounter explored in the film itself.

The book’s third chapter examines the period 1959 to 1968, taking in what Reddell characterizes as the Golden Age of Soviet science fiction cinema as well as other films, including La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). For Reddell the films of this period are marked by a move away from the electronic tonalities that had dominated science fiction in the previous decade. As he puts it, “Electronic sounds become suspect musical devices, not only due to their familiarity in SF films but also due to their saturation in pop music and rock” (p. 193). Reddell also detects in this period a change from tales of interstellar adventure to explorations of the psyche, arguing that the meeting of psychedelic culture and technology that took place in the films of this era “actualize a form of cosmic philosophy” (p. 195). One of the highlights of this chapter is Reddell’s reading of the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which considers in some detail Kubrick’s choice of music. Within film sound studies much work has been done on the use of readymade music in cinema. However, this has tended to focus primarily on rock and pop rather than the mix of classical and contemporary pieces heard in Kubrick’s film. Although composer Alexander North had been hired to write music for the film, the director decided he preferred the temporary tracks that had been used while editing rather than North’s original score – an example of what is sometimes referred to as “temp love.” Here Reddell’s analysis makes the argument that, rather than fitting the image precisely in terms of synchronization and perceived meaning, the relative “indifference” of Kubrick’s music to the images on screen creates a space in which the audience can speculate about the philosophical and allegorical meanings of the film. The radical nature of Kubrick’s practice here is recognized by Reddell, who comments, “Kubrick’s musical selections not only reverse the sensibilities of the science fiction film soundtrack, it also voids them, empties them out, silences them completely, especially in those sequences in which we are most accustomed to hearing musical cues” (p. 272).

Reddell’s next chapter examines the 1970s and groups together a disparate selection of films, including Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Space is the Place (John Coney, 1974) and the science fiction blockbusters Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977). While the soundtrack of Solaris evidences a return to electronically synthesized sound, and John Coney’s Space Is the Place features the space jazz of Sun Ra, Reddell observes that the big budget science fiction films of Hollywood marked a return to the scoring practices and styles of the classical era. Although Reddell has interesting things to say about each of his chosen films – including the way in which the introduction of surround sound marked a radical change in the construction of the audio-spectator as subject – he nevertheless struggles to bring these together as a coherent group of works under the chapter’s heading of “Sonic Alienation and Psytech at War.”

The final chapter of the book considers the period 1979 to 1989 and presents close analyses of films, including Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Decoder (Muscha, 1984), and the Apollo documentary For All Mankind (Al Reinert, 1989). While it is refreshing to see an author thinking about films that lie outside the context of popular mainstream cinema, perhaps Reddell’s most interesting insights in this final chapter relate to Blade Runner and Tron. What Reddell hears in Scott’s Blade Runner is a blurring of sounds that pervades the soundtrack of the film at every level, in part created by the use of reverb and echo in Vangelis’ score. Thus Reddell writes, “The gauzy blur around sounds and between sounds lends both a murky quality to the mix as well as a kind of underlying restlessness as sounds wander within active, reverberating space” (p. 387). According to Reddell, the looseness and lack of differentiation that he perceives in Vangelis’ score is also a product of the way in which the composer recorded and mixed the music for the film. Working to VHS tapes of completed scenes, Vangelis was neither concerned nor able to create precise synchronization of sound and image, but rather worked to create an ambient, reverberant soundscape for the film. Building on this analysis, and drawing on Michel Chion’s notion of anempathetic sound,[2] Reddell writes:

The sound objects heard in Blade Runner are profoundly indifferent to the events around them and rarely attach to a specific image or visual object on the screen; they rather pervade the film as ambience. Such sounds do not provide the filmgoer with a means of emoting within the imaginary world but instead seem to be there in order to remind us that every detail has been seen to, that this is a complete world yet also a fraud (p. 406-7).

Here again Reddell offers an original and insightful way of thinking about the relationship between technology, sound, and the narrative and thematic concerns of Blade Runner, turning as the film does on the figure of the replicant and uncertainly about identity in a posthuman world. 

While Reddell clearly sees himself as a theorist, in fact some of his best writing is narrative. This is evidenced by the account he gives of the work done for the film Tron by Wendy Carlos and the various other players involved in the production of the film’s soundtrack. Carlos had originally planned a score that combined electronic and orchestral sounds. However, much of Carlos’s score was replaced with other music, and the cues which did make the final cut were rendered primarily as nondiegetic effects. Here Reddell writes with great clarity, explaining and analyzing the various factors at play in the development of the soundtrack, while also using the film as a point of comparison with Blade Runner. However, Reddell’s preference for what has been termed “concept engineering” is evidenced by his style of writing, which can sometimes jeopardize clarity for the sake of style. To take one example, in his introduction to the third chapter of the book he writes, “A dynamic expansion of sonic psychotechnologies, capitalist virologies, and alien hypersentitivities runs throughout this chapter’s survey of the psonicosmos” (p. 201). While I fully appreciate that in order to offer new ways of thinking it is sometimes necessary to develop new modes of expression, I nevertheless found this style of writing sometimes less than engaging.

Reddell’s conceptual preferences are also revealed in his use of theoretical resources, which include work by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Pierre Schaeffer, Timothy Morton, Steven Shaviro, and Steve Goodman. Reddell makes it clear in the book’s Introduction how these resources are to be employed, stating: “I adapt and adopt them in a way that may once have been described in terms of bricolage, or which others might call a tool kit, but which I prefer to think of in terms of the modular components of my own thought synthesizer” (p. 33-4). This creative use of other people’s work is to be applauded, and a certain latitude in dealing with the source material allowed for the creation of new ideas – as, for example, where Reddell applies Timothy Morton’s notion of the hyperobject to sound. Here Reddell thinks through what a sonic hyperobject could be and how, in turn, this might help us to think about the use of sound in John Carpenter’s The Thing. While I am not yet entirely convinced of the applicability of Morton’s ideas to film sound analysis, Reddell’s proposal is nevertheless creative and provocative and has the potential, at least, to open up new perspectives within film sound studies. However, in many instances Reddell’s theoretical interjections could be discarded without any significant effect on the development and application of his idea of the sonic novum. What this evidences – as with the case of the book’s false start in Chapter One – is the need for more judicious editing. Rather, the strength of Reddell’s writing – and I would suggest the primary value of this book – lies in the close analysis of specific films. Film criticism is an art, one which has the potential to radically change the reader’s understanding and perception of cinema. One of the things that good critical writing on film does is to return the reader to the films being discussed with renewed interest and with a fresh perspective – allowing them to see and hear familiar works in new ways – as well as introducing new works and new areas of scholarship. In these respects, Reddell’s book repays the attention and effort it demands.