Sound Envisioned

Science Fiction and Future Music (aka Sonic Fiction, Part Two)

You’re familiar, I expect, with that old chestnut about the futility of writing about music? But how much more absurd would it be to boogie to buildings that haven’t been built yet, fantastical edifices that are just the fever-dream blueprints inside an architect’s over-heated brain. Yet that’s what the science fiction writer who seeks to imagine tomorrow’s music is attempting. It’s enough of a challenge to describe already existing music, but to take something so abstract and elusive, project forward from its present forms to the future, then try to evoke the flavour of these phantasmal sounds . . . well, the results are likely to be unconvincing, or embarrassing, or both.

My curiosity about the deficiencies (and rare triumphs) of the science fiction movie sound track was sparked by Star Wars and its famous scene in the lowlife bar where the alien band play really far out music that turns out, on close inspection, to be just Benny Goodman-style swing. When it comes to SF writers and their visions of sound-to-come, the intrigue started with William Gibson and, specifically, Idoru, whose whole storyline concerns pop but which strangely lacks a soundtrack, as it were. Gibson’s novels brilliantly imagine the near-future but are oddly mute when it comes to music – even as a vague ‘rock’n’roll’-ness suffuses most every page. Interviewed about Idoru when it came out in 1996, Gibson suggested that ‘There’s never been a successful science fiction rock’n’roll book, not in my opinion.’ An interesting assertion – and a candid admission, given that the genre he helped to pioneer contains the word ‘punk’.

I asked Bruce Sterling, who has collaborated with Gibson and is considered cyberpunk’s coinventor, about SF’s difficulties with music. The analogy he came up with was ‘the old jazz muso’ who, interviewed by a journalist about where he feels music is going next, replies: ‘If I knew what the future of jazz was, I’d be playing it already.’ Sterling, whose own 1999 rock’n’roll novel Zeitgeist was set in the present, argued that while it’s ‘pretty easy to write about future models of the music industry or future roles for musicians within future societies’, describing ‘what music sounds like in the future is kinda tough’.