JANE: Last week, I mentioned that despite all our chatter, I keep thinking of authors who awaken “Sense of Wonder” for me.
Two words: Roger Zelazny.
A couple of titles: Lord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness, This Immortal, Isle of the Dead, Eye of Cat…
ALAN: Roger could certainly always give me that authentic spine-tingle. But he wasn’t alone in that. Theodore Sturgeon was also a master of the sense of wonder. His fix-up novel More than Human describes the evolution of homo gestalt, a combination of minds forming, albeit briefly, someone whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It has interesting things to say about morality and ethics, particularly in the last third or so of the book, which I must admit does get a tad preachy… But never mind.
JANE: (aside) “Fix-up,” for those of our readers who discovered SF prior to the dominance of the novel, is a novel constructed from various previously written short stories. Fix-ups can be especially good for “idea” stories, because the shorter length allows for focus on an idea, while combining them into a novel often provides more dimension to the characters.
Let’s see… Who else gives me that “sense of wonder” feeling?
For good old-fashioned adventure, you can’t beat Jack Williamson. I love Darker Than You Think, and his various “Legion of Space” stories. But he also touched a deeper cultural nerve in his tale “With Folded Hands,” (later re-done as The Humanoids), which introduces a future in which robot caregivers make everything wonderfully, absolutely, perfectly safe…
The setting and prose may be old-fashioned, but the more I look at our evolving “seat belt,” insurance-minded, sanitizer hand soap, never-take-a-risk culture, the more I think Jack was telling a parable for the ages. Today, so many sit “With Folded Hands.”
ALAN: Jack Williamson never really did much for me – I found his prose a bit clunky.
JANE: (Waving hand in the air in the best annoying student fashion.) Ooh!! Can I interrupt… Please?
ALAN: Are you asking for permission to take a toilet break? You aren’t? OK – what point do you want to make?
JANE: I’m not arguing that Jack’s prose could be less than artistic – but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a great contributor not only to SF’s ideas (something Arthur C. Clarke himself gave Jack credit for), but to its language.
Jack originated two terms that remain in current use and have, in fact, graduated from the realm of science fiction to general use.
“Terraforming” first appeared in his story “Collision Orbit,” published in Astounding Science Fiction.
“Genetic engineering” first was used in his 1952 novel, Dragon Island. It’s interesting to note that Williamson coined the term before the role of DNA in heredity was confirmed.
Jack didn’t coin the term “android,” but his use of it in “The Cometeers” in 1936 is credited with bringing it to a wider audience.
So, “clunky” or not, Jack Williamson contributed more to modern language than many of those self-consciously stylish prose writers.
ALAN: And in two fix-up novels, Seetee Shock and Seetee Ship, he coined the neologism “Seetee” which is a pronunciation of the initialism CT which itself stands for “contra-terrene” matter. These days we’d call it anti-matter (a concept first described by the physicist Paul Dirac in 1930). Williamson’s term never really caught on, but it should have. In my opinion, anti-matter is a rather ugly term. Seetee is much nicer.
So, yes, I cannot deny his importance in the field.
But equally, I cannot deny the importance of Henry James in the mainstream literary world. Nevertheless I cannot read anything by Henry James without immediately falling fast asleep.
JANE: Wow! Another place where our tastes cross! I am amazed.
ALAN: However, despite my feelings about Williamson, I did admire his collaborations with Frederik Pohl. But Pohl was, in my opinion, a genius. His Gateway stories have a sense of wonder in spades, particularly the first two novels which take place before the alien Heechee actually appear on stage, though evidence of them is everywhere around.
Does any of that help to pin down what I mean by sense of wonder?
JANE: It does. What did you think of John Varley’s three-part Titan, Wizard, Demon?
ALAN: I really enjoyed them, though I gather that a lot of people don’t think much of them. The alien Titanides are brought brilliantly to life and as the series progresses it gets more and more surreal. (I’ve always loved surrealism). The image of a fifty-foot tall Marilyn Monroe has stayed with me for many years…
JANE: I’m with you on enjoying them. (And a lot of people must have agreed with us, since Titan was on every major award ballot when it came out, then won the Locus Award in the novel category. The sequels also hit the award lists.)
The first novel Titan focuses on the initial exploration by the crew of the Ringmaster of a planet-sized intelligence dubbed Gaea. Gaea (who isn’t round like a planet, but is shaped like a Stanford torus) has been deeply influenced by exposure to television and movies that reached her via television signals. Various strange things happen to the crew before they meet Gaea herself.
Wizard is set several years later. The ship’s captain, Cirocco Jones, has become a full-time resident of the Gaea – her ambassador or resident “Wizard” and a raging alcoholic. Her friend, Gaby, another survivor of the Ringmaster’s crew, handles much of the day-to-day work, including interfacing with “pilgrims” who come to Gaea hoping to win miracle cures.
In Demon, Cirocco rebels against her state and sets out to wrestle control from Gaea, no easy task, given that she’s living on the surface of the entity she hopes to rebel against.
I love the big concept and how the crazy details (including the fifty-foot tall Marilyn Monroe) actually make sense in this context.
ALAN: Almost all the writers we’ve discussed so far are from an earlier generation. What about the people who are writing SF today? Do any of them have that authentic sense of wonder feeling about them?
JANE: For me, sure, some do, but it’s a harder find, I’ll admit. Let’s talk about that next time.