Sense of wonder
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A sense of wonder is an intellectual and emotional state frequently invoked in discussions of science fiction. It is an emotional reaction to the reader suddenly confronting, understanding, or seeing a concept anew in the context of new information.
Definitions and origins
In Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction the term sense of wonder is defined as follows:
SENSE OF WONDER n. a feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible or by confrontation with the vastness of space and time, as brought on by reading science fiction.:179
In the introductory section of his essay 'On the Grotesque in Science Fiction', Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Professor of English, DePauw University, states:
The so-called sense of wonder has been considered one of the primary attributes of sf at least since the pulp era. The titles of the most popular sf magazines of that period—Astounding, Amazing, Wonder Stories, Thrilling, Startling, etc.—clearly indicate that the putative cognitive value of sf stories is more than counter-balanced by an affective power, to which, in fact, the scientific content is expected to submit.:71
John Clute and Peter Nicholls associate the experience with that of the "conceptual breakthrough" or "paradigm shift" (Clute & Nicholls 1993). In many cases, it is achieved through the recasting of previous narrative experiences in a larger context. It can be found in short scenes (e.g., in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it can be found, in a small dose, inside the line "That's no moon; it's a space station.") and it can require entire novels to set up (as in the final line to Iain Banks's Feersum Endjinn.)
George Mann suggests that this ‘sense of wonder’ is associated only with science fiction as distinct from science fantasy, stating:
It is this insistence on fundamental realism that has caused Verne’s novels to be retrospectively seen as of key importance in the development of SF. …—people in droves came to the books looking for adventure and got it, but with an edge of scientific inquiry that left them with a new, very different sense of wonder. The magic of the realms of fantasy had been superseded by the fascination of speculation rooted in reality.:10
Mann later defines the term as “the sense of inspired awe that is aroused in a reader when the full implications of an event or action become realized, or when the immensity of a plot or idea first becomes known;”:508 and he associates the term with the Golden Age of SF and the pulp magazines prevalent at the time. One of the major writers of the Golden Age, Isaac Asimov, agreed with this association: in 1967 commenting on the changes occurring in SF he wrote,
And because today’s real life so resembles day-before-yesterday’s fantasy, the old-time fans are restless. Deep within, whether they admit it or not, is a feeling of disappointment and even outrage that the outer world has invaded their private domain. They feel the loss of a “sense of wonder” because what was once truly confined to “wonder” has now become prosaic and mundane.:ix
However, the editor and critic David Hartwell sees SF’s ‘sense of wonder’ in more general terms, as ”being at the root of the excitement of science fiction.” He continues:
Any child who has looked up at the stars at night and thought about how far away they are, how there is no end or outer edge to this place, this universe—any child who has felt the thrill of fear and excitement at such thoughts stands a very good chance of becoming a science fiction reader.
To say that science fiction is in essence a religious literature is an overstatement, but one that contains truth. SF is a uniquely modern incarnation of an ancient tradition: the tale of wonder. Tales of miracles, tales of great powers and consequences beyond the experience of people in your neighborhood, tales of the gods who inhabit other worlds and sometimes descend to visit ours, tales of humans traveling to the abode of the gods, tales of the uncanny: all exist now as science fiction.
Science fiction’s appeal lies in combination of the rational, the believable, with the miraculous. It is an appeal to the sense of wonder.:42
Academic criticism of science fiction literature (Robu 1988) identifies the idea of the sublime described by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant—infinity, immensity, "delightful horror"—as a key to understanding the concept of "sense of wonder" in science fiction. For example, Professor of English at the University of Iowa, Brooks Landon says:
Reference to this “sense of wonder,” a term appropriated and popularized by Damon Knight, appear over and over in twentieth-century discussions of SF and may at least in part reflect SF’s debt to its Gothic and Romantic forerunners.:18
In the Gothic mode, emphasis was placed on the distant and unearthly … Brooding landscapes, isolated castles, dismal old towns, and mysterious figures … carry us into an entranced world from which horrid revelations start …. Terror, mystery and that delightful horror which Burke connected with the sublime … may be discovered … in science fiction to this day.:103
Paul K. Alkon in his book Science Fiction before 1900. Imagination Discovers Technology makes a similar point:
The affinities of science fiction and Gothic literature also reveal a common quest for those varieties of pleasing terror induced by awe-inspiring events or settings that Edmund Burke and other eighteenth-century critics call the sublime. A looming problem for writers in the nineteenth century was how to achieve sublimity without recourse to the supernatural. ... The supernatural marvels that had been a staple of epic and lesser forms from Homeric times would no longer do as the best sources of sublimity. ... writers sought new forms that could better accommodate the impact of science.:2
Alkon concludes that "science fiction ever since [the 19th century] has been concerned as often to elicit strong emotional responses as to maintain a rational basis for its plots. Far from being mutually exclusive, the two aims can reinforce each other ...",:3
Edward James, in a section of his book entitled ‘The Sense of Wonder’ says on this point of the origin of the 'sense of wonder' in SF:
That the concept of the Sublime, a major aesthetic criterion of the Romantic era, has a close connection with the pleasures derived from reading sf has long been recognized by readers and critics, even if that word has seldom been used. The phrase that has been used, and which to a large extent corresponds, is ‘Sense of Wonder’ (sometimes jocularly or cynically abbreviated to ‘sensawunda’). The very first collection of sf criticism was Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder (1956).:105
James goes on to explore the same point as made by David Hartwell in his book Age of Wonders (and quoted above) as regards the relationship of the ‘sense of wonder’ in SF to religion or the religious experience. He states that,
… in doing so, it [science fiction] can create a rival sense of wonder, which acts almost as a replacement religion: a religion for those deprived of all traditional certainties in the wake of Darwin, Einstein, Plank, Godel, and Heisenberg.:106
A computer is installed by Western technicians in a Tibetan lamasery; its task is in to speed up the compilation of all the possible names of God. This, the monks believe, is what the human race was created for, and on its completion the earth, and perhaps all creation, will come to an end. The technicians do their job, with some condescension, and flee back to civilization.
‘Wonder if the computer’s finished its run. It was due about now.’
Chuck didn’t reply, so George swung round in his saddle. He could just see Chuck’s face, a white oval toward the sky.
‘Look,’ whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)
Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
… what this reader (at the age of 13 or 14) learned from the story was the unimaginable size of the universe and the implausibility of some of the traditional human images of God. An almost religious sense of awe (or wonder) was created in me, as I tried to perceive the immensity of the universe, and contemplate the possibility of the non-existence of God.:106–107
It is appropriate that Edward James chooses a story by Arthur C. Clarke to make the point. One critic is of the opinion that Clarke "has dedicated his career to evoking a "sense of wonder" at the sublime spaces of the universe ...":5 Editor and SF researcher Mike Ashley agrees:
If there is one writer whose work epitomizes that sense of wonder, it is without doubt, Arthur C. Clarke. It's almost impossible to read any of his stories or novels without experiencing that trigger-moment when the mind expands to take in an awe-inspiring concept. ... It's there in his novel's Childhood's End, The City and the Stars, Rendezvous with Rama and his short stories "The Star", "Jupiter V" and "The Nine Billion Names of God"—possibly the definitive "sense of wonder" story.:1
Kathryn Cramer in her essay ‘On Science and Science Fiction’ also explores the relationship of SF’s ‘sense of wonder’ to religion, stating that “the primacy of the sense of wonder in science fiction poses a direct challenge to religion: Does the wonder of science and the natural world as experienced through science fiction replace religious awe?”  :28
However, as Brooks Landon shows, not all 'sense of wonder' needs to be so closely related to the classical sense of the Sublime. Commenting on the story 'Twilight' by John W. Campbell he says:
... Campbell stresses how long seven million years is in human terms but notes that this time span is nothing in the life of the sun, whose "two thousand thousand thousand" risings ... As Campbell well knew, one sure path to a sense of wonder was big numbers.":26–27
The word "sevagram" appears only once in the series, as the very last word of The Weapon Makers; in its placing, which seems to open universes to the reader's gaze, and in its resonant mysteriousness, for its precise meaning is unclear, this use of "sevagram" may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole genre sf of how to impart a sense of wonder.:1269
Despite the attempts above to define and illustrate the 'sense of wonder' in SF, Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. argues that "unlike most of the other qualities regularly associated with the genre, the sense of wonder resists critical commentary.":71 The reason he suggests is that,
A "literature of ideas," as sf is often said to be, invites discussion of ideas; but the sense of wonder seems doubly to resist intellectual investigation. As a "sense," it is clearly not about ideas and indeed seems in opposition to them; wonder even more so, with its implications of awe that short-circuits analytic thought.:71
Nevertheless, despite this "resistance to critical commentary," the 'sense of wonder' has "a well-established pedigree in art, separated into two related categories of response: the expansive sublime and the intensive grotesque.":71 Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. explains the difference between these two categories as follows::
The sublime is a response to an imaginative shock, the complex recoil and recuperation of consciousness coping with objects too great to be encompassed. The grotesque, on the other hand, is a quality usually attributed to objects, the strange conflation of disparate elements not found in nature. This distinction is true to their difference. The sublime expands consciousness inward as it encompasses limits to its outward expansion of apprehension; the grotesque is a projection of fascinated repulsion/attraction out into objects that consciousness cannot accommodate, because the object disturbs the sense of rational, natural categorization. In both cases, the reader/perceiver is shocked by a sudden estrangement from habitual perception, and in both cases the response is to suspend one's confidence in knowledge about the world, and to attempt to redefine the real in thought's relation to nature. Both are concerned with the states of mind that science and art have in common: acute responsiveness to the objects of the world, the testing (often involuntary) of the categories conventionally used to interpret the world, and the desire to articulate what consciousness finds inarticulable.:71
Later in this same essay the author argues that "the sublime and the grotesque are in such close kinship that they are shadows of each other," and that "it is not always easy to distinguish the two, and the grotesque of one age easily becomes the sublime of another.":79 He gives as an example the android (T-1000) in the second 'Terminator' film Terminator 2: Judgment Day, saying that "the T-1000, like so many liminal figures in sf, is almost simultaneously sublime and grotesque. Its fascinating shape-shifting would be the object of sublime awe were it not for its sadistic violation of mundane flesh:76
Natural vs Synthetic Origin
Sharona Ben-Tov in her book The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality explores science-fiction's (SF) 'sense of wonder' from a feminist perspective. Her book is a "thought-provoking work of criticism that provides a new and interesting perspective on some basic elements in science fiction," including the 'sense of wonder'.:327 In his review of Ben-Tov’s work for the SF critical journal Extrapolation David Dalgleish, quoting from the text, points out that,
Ben-Tov asserts that SF's (in)famous "sense of wonder" is an attempt to evoke a sublime transcendence, achieved through Nature, and "Nature is an animate, feminine, and numinous being" (23). But in SF as Ben-Tov sees it, this natural transcendence is merely an illusion; in fact, the transcendent is only achieved through technology, achieved by alienating feminine Nature. SF has "appropriated the qualities of abundance and harmony from the romance's Earthly paradise, banishing the figure of feminine nature from the man-made, rationalized world ...(22) ... The SF ideology that Ben-Tov examines is rooted in the scientific revolution, in the changing view of nature—from living, feminine Mother, Nature becomes inert, dead matter. This twentieth-century ideology has, for Ben-Tov, disturbing implications, especially from a feminist standpoint. "Our society," writes Ben-Tov, "lost the basis for transcendent experience by losing the relationship with numinous nature"(23). Thus, SF's "sense of wonder" is a lie: "it reflects white American fantasies about nature, machines, and the `frontier' . . . . The American mythological apparatus must be comprehended thoroughly to be handled, or dismantled, effectively" (92–93).:327
There is no doubt that the term 'sense of wonder' is used and understood by readers of SF without the need of explanation or elaboration. For example, SF author and critic David Langford reviewing an SF novel in the New York Review of Science Fiction was able to write "I suppose it's all a frightfully mordant microcosm of human aspirations, but after so much primitive carnage, the expected multiversal sense-of-wonder jolt comes as a belated infodump rather than ...":8[note 1]
- Below are listed examples of the 'casual' use of the term 'sense of wonder' in SF criticism.
- "Most science fiction writers wish to make their readers feel the thrill, the sense of wonder, that so marked SF's youth that the genre still claims it as a sort of trademark, even though it is scarcely to be found today." Tom Easton. Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: May 2000. Vol. 120, Iss.5; page. 134
- "The backstory. Two previous Mars expeditions have failed. ... An American crew perished further south, leaving an empty base ... and return vehicle, the Dulcinea. ... Now it's the turn of the international free-lancers ...The landing is successful, right on target and just a few minute' stroll from the Dulcinea. Sense of wonder oozes from the pages as the crew steps onto the Martian surface." Tom Easton. Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: Jan 2001. Vol. 121, Iss. 1; page. 135
- "I first read Thrust Into Space by Maxwell W. Hunter II 30 years ago when I was around 11 or 12. At a time when I was just discovering real science fiction, and first reading the works of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, this book evoked for me exactly the same " sense of wonder" as did the works of that great trinity." Jeffrey D Kooistra. Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: Jul/Aug 2002. Vol. 122, Iss. 7/8; page. 128
- "The story is also far less melodramatic than it might have been if published during the 1950s. Included are brief discussions of mathematical and other scientific problems that evoke a kind of old-fashioned sense of wonder about the universe without disrupting the flow of the story." Don D'Ammassa. Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: May 2009. Vol. 129, Iss. 5; page.101
- David E. Nye brings a keen eye to the history of technology in the United States. I used his American Technological Sublime in classes for years. I may well use his latest ... too. ... The thesis of the earlier book was—in extreme brief—that in America technological wonders—from railroads to the nuclear bomb—evoked the same emotional response as natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon. This response was the blend of awe and terror and wonder that had long been called "the sublime." There was, to me, a clear connection to the sfnal "sense of wonder" that helped explain why twentieth-century science fiction was predominantly American." Tom Easton. Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: Jun 2005. Vol. 125, Iss. 6; pg. 136
- "The sense of wonder that marks the SF sensibility is hard to teach and certainly cannot be dictated or overlain on a soul that lacks it. It must come from within, and when it does, all the wonders of the universe are within reach." Tom Easton. Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: Dec 1998. Vol. 118, Iss. 12; pg. 133
- "...if we take note of Kubrick's (and Clarke's) film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a powerful meditation on the relations of the sublime and the banal. To get into space we seem to have needed to suspend the imagination and sense of wonder that was a very important part of what made us want to get into space in the first place. Sober precise technicians were called for." Christopher Palmer. 'Big Dumb Objects in Science Fiction: Sublimity, Banality, and Modernity,' Extrapolation. Kent: Spring 2006.Vol. 47, Iss. 1; page. 103
- "He [ Stephen Baxter ] thinks it's critical for NASA and other space agencies to reestablish the sense of wonder by sending poets, philosophers, and science fiction writers into space, but he ..." Richard A. Lovett. Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: Apr 2006. Vol. 126, Iss. 4; page. 89
- "The best writers observe things. Sometimes these are details about the universe. Sometimes they are grand visions that instill the sense of wonder about which science fiction fans wax lyrical. Other times, the observations take the form of details about people or the lives we live: overlooked realities that ring true as they float across the page before us." Richard A Lovett. Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: Jan/Feb 2010. Vol. 130, Iss. 1/2; page. 56
- "It was that vision of exciting new technologies and the bright tomorrows they might create that gave us the "sense of wonder" veteran fans lament with such nostalgia. It made us the unhonored prophets of a new faith, lonely pioneers in a world of critical unbelievers bewildered by the term "science fiction. " Fellow fans were rare, and we found one another with feelings of instant kinship." Jack Williamson. 'Recollections of Analog,' Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: Jan 2000. Vol. 120, Iss. 1; page. 94
- Radoff, Jon (27 May 2010). "The Attack on Imagination". Retrieved 5 October 2010.
- Prucher, Jeff (ed.). Brave New Words. The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2007)
- Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. 'On the Grotesque in Science Fiction', Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 71–99
- Mann, George (ed.). The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (London: Robinson, 2001)
- Asimov, Isaac. ‘Forward 1 – The Second Revolution’ in Ellison, Harlan (ed.). Dangerous Visions (London: Victor Gollancz, 1987)
- Hartwell, David. Age of Wonders (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985)
- Landon, Brooks. Science Fiction after 1900. From the Steam Man to the Stars (New York: Twayne, 1977)
- Aldiss, Brian and David Wingrove (eds.).Trillion Year Spree quoted in James, Edward. Science Fiction in the 20th Century (Oxford University Press, 1994)
- Alkon, Paul K. Science Fiction before 1900. Imagination Discovers Technology (New York: Routledge, 2002)
- James, Edward. Science Fiction in the 20th Century (Oxford University Press, 1994)
- Seed, David. 'Introduction' in David Seed (ed.) A Companion to Science Fictiion (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008)
- Ashley, Mike. Introduction to 'Out of the Sun' in Ashley, Mike (ed.) The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF (London: Constable and Robinson, 2009)
- Cramer, Kathryn. ‘Introduction: On Science and Science Fiction,’ in David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (eds.), The Ascent of Wonder. The Evolution of Hard SF (London: Orbit, 1994)
- Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter (eds.).The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (New York: St. Martin Griffin, 1993)
- Ben-Tov, Sharona. The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995)
- Dalgleish, David. Book review: 'The ambivalent paradise: Or, nature and the transcendent in British SF,' review of The Artificial Paradise by Sharona Ben-Tov', Extrapolation Kent: Winter 1997.Vol. 38, Iss. 4; pg. 327
- Franson, Donald. "A Key to the Terminology of science fiction fandom"
- Langford, David. 'Random Reading 2' in New York Review of Science Fiction April 2002, Number 164, Vol 14, No. 8
- Clute, John; Peter Nicholls (1993). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Moskowitz, Sam (1974). Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom. New York: Hyperion Books.
- Robu, Cornel (Spring 1988). "A Key to Science Fiction: the Sublime". Foundation (42): 21–37.