TT: Wondering About Sense of Wonder

News Flash!  Peter Donald is this week’s winner of the Make Artemis This Summer’s Hot Destination contest.  You can still enter. Details here.

And now to our regularly scheduled Tangent…

ALAN: Last time we both used the term “sense of wonder” when we were talking about what made us like Jack McDevitt’s stories. We agreed that, for both of us, it is this sense of wonder that attracted us to SF in the first place and it is something that we always look for when we are reading SF books.

Chariot of the Gods?

Leaping Sky Sheep of Wonder

But what exactly is this sense of wonder? And why is it so important to us?

JANE: For me, sense of wonder has to do with books that get me excited, make me believe that there are things bigger, grander, more exciting out there.  And “in here,” too.  SF introduced me to the idea that “we” still don’t know what a large portion of the brain does.  So I was open to the idea that psionic powers might work, despite the fact that numerous “scientific” tests seem to disprove them.

I could go on, but let me give you a chance to get a word in edgewise.

ALAN: For me, it’s a definition of my place in the universe. The fact that the universe even exists at all is something that’s so hard to get my head around that I’m just lost in awe whenever I contemplate it. I want to ask just how the human race fits in to the grand scheme and whether or not people (or things, I’m not biased) elsewhere in the universe have ever asked themselves that same question. And, if so, what answers did they come up with?

JANE: Interesting…  Many years ago, on a moonless night, I was lying on my back staring up at the sky.  I just kept looking and somewhere along the way the sky “flipped” and I was seeing not black dotted with white, but white sparkles and colored sparkles and they were going on and on.

For that brief moment, I came as close to seeing infinity as I ever have…  Wonder, indeed.

ALAN: That’s it exactly! The best SF can induce exactly that same feeling. I’m not trying to turn SF into some kind of deep philosophical speculation (though it can be) – if I really wanted that, I could read books of philosophy. But I don’t read books of philosophy, because by and large they are dull and often incomprehensible.

But I do ask SF to give me stories that convey some sense of scale, some hint of place and time, some appreciation of mystery in the might-have-been or the maybe-it-will-be. The story doesn’t have to be explicit – metaphors often work better when you are dealing with such large ideas. It doesn’t even have to be serious – the very best comedy can often achieve transcendence.

In 1989, Alexei and Cory Panshin wrote a very large history of science fiction, examining the literature from just this point of view. It’s called The World Beyond the Hill and it is sub-titled Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. My autographed copy is number 76 of a limited edition of 500. The book was later re-printed in much larger numbers and it won a Hugo award in 1990.

If that sense of wonder, or transcendence if you like, is not present in a story, then it often fails to hold my attention.

JANE: I agree.  Lately, I can’t help but feel a lot of SF is “shutting down,” focusing on plagues, ecological disaster, failed space missions…  Who would want that future?

Now, I’m not saying that the stories need to be all happy and all…   Characters who become involved, who care about finding what will open up possibility, these can make the most dystopian of futures interesting – because a willingness to combat whatever is dystopic creates the sense of wonder.

ALAN: Quite right. There’s nothing nice about George Orwell’s 1984. But it’s a powerful and moving work nonetheless.

JANE: Have you read any of James S.A. Corey’s “Expanse,” novels?  The first one is Leviathan Wakes.

ALAN: No, I’m sorry but I’ve never heard of James S.A. Corey. You’ll have to tell me more.

JANE: Well, first, James S.A. Corey is really two people: Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham.  They got to be friends as part of the rambling vine of social interactions that exists here in New Mexico.  Ty had created an elaborate future history of our solar system for a role-playing game he had run when he lived elsewhere.  He tried the same setting on a new audience here in New Mexico.  This game – as I understand it – didn’t take but Daniel was impressed by the detail Ty had put into the setting.

In the best tradition of creativity, he said to Ty: “Let’s put on a show!”

They did.  I read Leviathan Wakes out of curiosity regarding what these two had come up with.  I read the next one, Caliban’s War, because I’d liked the first book.  Ditto the third, Abbadon’s Gate.  I’m behind.  And now “The Expanse” is being made into a TV series on SyFy.

ALAN: SyFy will probably be the kiss of death as far as creativity goes – but I was with you all the way until then!

JANE: Ah, but they already had at least four novels written before the TV project came up, so they had a nice lead.

Anyhow, the Expanse novels are a good example of what I mean by characters helping create the sense of wonder element.  Otherwise, what with spit-zombies, world-eating bio weapons, and all the rest, I wouldn’t have read more than a couple of chapters.  However, the two main characters – idealistic Captain Jim Holden and cynical yet oddly determined cop Detective Josephus Miller – carried me along.

I’m haven’t read the fourth book but, at least at the end of the third, rather than degenerating into military action, doors into a larger universe have opened up.  I’m curious as to what they characters will discover next.

Who gives you that sense of wonder?

ALAN: That’s a very big question with very big answers – perhaps we could go into more detail next time?


4 Responses to “TT: Wondering About Sense of Wonder”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Hmm. I’ve got to interject a third note here: progress. One of the great things about the sense of wonder is there’s this aspect of positive exploration, that there’s something new and neat beyond the next hill, and we should go there and understand it and conquer it.

    I threw in that last, because that’s the flip side of progress. It’s a great emotion for imperialistic conquerors, just as it is for the scouts and explorers who are out there on the front lines, trying to get away from it and bringing it in their wake. We’re living in a world where the dark side of imperial ambitions is still playing out, thousands of people are dying and millions are suffering as a result. Their voices are getting heard too, and they are important. You can ask a Maori whether she’d feel that sense of wonder as the British settled New Zealand, for instance, or ask the Puebloan peoples whether they felt an expansion of possibilities and wonder when the US or the Spanish rolled in.

    I’d read future dystopia differently. A lot of people look at the future and see a looming disaster with climate change. I’d say that, in the best tradition of science fiction, the dystopian writers are trying to explore that futures, just as SF writers decades ago explored space. Unfortunately, it’s not new and wonderful, it’s half-familiar and terrifying, because it exposes how fragile everyday life is, and how lucky we are now. Actually, a lot of old SF did that too, but we tend to gloss over how many conflicts over communism, civil rights, or even nuclear war* showed up in the great works of the past, and to focus on who wonderful their worlds are.

    Still, there’s another way to think of dystopias. In Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the Raven King leased a kingdom “on the far side of hell” from Lucifer. To me, that’s the place worth exploring. But it’s a hard place to get to, and most dystopian writers are still trekking through the hell of the immediate future. Perhaps, on the far side of hells, there’s something wonderful growing out from the crumbling rubble.

    Still, I really can’t blame people for trying to make SF the literature of the future again, even if we’re writing about our fears of climate change right now. Even though we value that sense of wonder, SFF is as much a way for us to face our fears and challenges and to play with them in the safety of our minds.

    *It’s worth remembering that Star Trek, which is probably one of the most positive future models, is explicitly a post-apocalyptic universe, as its humans survived a nuclear war before they even invented the warp drive.

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    A friend to whom I introduced SF (and who initially wondered why I wasn’t interested in astrology if I was interested in astronomy) read some early dystopias (“Fahrenheit 451,” etc.) and wondered if the author was predicting those futures. I explained that most of those books were written to help avoid those futures. But I agree today that dystopias are far too plentiful in the field.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    It just occurred to me that the perceived glut of dystopias isn’t a new problem. After all, how many translations of Dante’s Inferno are there, compared with his Purgatorio and Paradiso? My father’s the only person I know who read all three.

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