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Sense of Wonder

Entry updated 6 December 2021. Tagged: Theme.

A term used to describe the sensation which, according to the Cliché of fan criticism that goes back at least to the 1940s, good sf should inspire in the reader. In Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) Darko Suvin summed up the attitude of many critics by describing the term as "another superannuated slogan of much SF criticism due for a deserved retirement into the same limbo as extrapolation". And yet ...

"Sense of wonder" is an interesting critical phrase, for it defines sf not by its content but by its effect (the term "Horror" is another such). Several fan critics, notably Alexei and Cory Panshin in The World Beyond the Hill (1989), have attempted to locate the "sense of wonder" more specifically; the Panshins found it in sf's "quest for transcendence", which elicited wonderment from John Clute that the Panshins could give such emphasis to "the reified wet-dream they think of as transcendence, but which others might call fetish". It is true that to locate one abstraction, "sense of wonder", within another, "transcendence", does not take us far forward, but that does not necessarily rob the former phrase of its usefulness. Clute himself defines the always loosely described sense of wonder in different ways, but perhaps most interestingly as a form of dramatic irony, where the reader already knows, if only for a sentence of text, what the protagonist is about to discover.

The second interesting thing about "sense of wonder" is that, by consensus, it can be found par excellence in a number of books that are usually regarded as rather badly written. Both E E "Doc" Smith and A E van Vogt, for example, failed to transcend the pulp style in novels which involved the transcending of many other Earthly perspectives. The simplest escape from the paradox – that sf's highest aspiration, the "sense of wonder", should often be located in its lowest form, pulp prose – is to claim that those readers who find the diamond in the dung-heap are mistaken, misled not by Smith and van Vogt directly but by their own yearning adolescent dreams, as fed by Smith, van Vogt and the others. This becomes another version of the cynical old epigram that the Golden Age of SF is twelve (or 13, or 14), and as such may be rejected by the many readers who can still recall with perfect clarity the feelings inspired in them by their first childhood or adolescent encounters with these books, feelings that seem too honest and strong to be dismissed as youthful illusion. The term "sense of wonder" is useful precisely because it sums up these feelings accurately and succinctly. Indeed, the principle of Occam's Razor suggests that, rather than arguing (without evidence) that the diamond in the dung-heap was (or is) really a bit of old quartz, it would be more useful to accept it as a diamond, and to go on to ask the really interesting question: what was (and is) it doing there?

Twin loci classici of the "sense of wonder" are the final sentences of van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher (July 1941 and December 1942 Astounding; February 1949 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1951) and The Weapon Makers (February-April 1943 Astounding; dated 1947 but 1946; rev 1952; vt One Against Eternity 1955 dos). The first novel ends: "He would not witness but he would aid in the formation of the planets." The second novel ends with an alien comment on humanity: "This much we have learned. Here is the race that shall rule the sevagram."

The first of these examples (the second is discussed in the entry on A E van Vogt) presents a sudden shift in perspective, as the previously human protagonist of the novel now, compelled by ever deeper seesaw-swings into the past and the future, becomes an astronomical phenomenon, the phenomenon from which we all sprang: here is the Hero as cosmological Adam. The "sense of wonder" comes not from brilliant writing nor even from brilliant conceptualizing; it comes from a sudden opening of a closed door in the reader's mind. (This phenomenon may explain why generations of readers can still quote these final lines verbatim.) In other words, the "sense of wonder" may not necessarily be something generated in the text by a writer (which is where the Panshins' analysis foundered, in their suggestion, for example, that Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom is a "transcendent realm"): it is created by the writer putting the readers in a position from which they can glimpse for themselves, with no further auctorial aid, a scheme of things where mankind is seen in a new perspective.

Cornel Robu, in "A Key to Science Fiction: The Sublime" (Spring 1988 Foundation #42) and elsewhere, has argued that the new perspective is often a sudden dislocation of scale, a shift to a new position along the enormous span between cosmos and microcosm. Robu's argument that the "sublime" is the key to "sense of wonder" takes its cue from a review by Peter Nicholls (June 1972 Foundation #2) of Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (June-August 1967 Galaxy as "To Outlive Eternity"; exp 1970), where, in an attempt to understand why so flatly characterized a book could be so moving, Nicholls took refuge in defining "sense of wonder" by quoting Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey": "And I have felt ... a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: / A motion and a spirit, that impels. / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things." Another critic to use aesthetic notions of what he calls "the natural sublime" in an sf context has been David Ketterer in "Science Fiction and Allied Literature" (Science Fiction Studies March 1976).

To move from Wordsworth to van Vogt may not quite be to move from the sublime to the ridiculous. Van Vogt's hero poised in the archaic heavens ready to create the planets will indeed, and literally, be far more deeply "interfused" than the reader could possibly have expected up to that point of the novel. Young readers of van Vogt might have been amused to know that they would have to wait three decades, until about the mid-1970s, before again encountering the view implied by van Vogt's sentence – but this time lent support by the speculations of quantum physicists – that the Universe exists as an external structure only through the consciousness of its participants. The suggestion is not that van Vogt seriously anticipated the quantum physicists; it is that his last sentence invites readers to open their minds to such thoughts.

Arguably, almost any "sense-of-wonder"-producing case embedded in an sf text, no matter how weak that text may be elsewhere, could be analysed to show a comparable forcing of Conceptual Breakthrough. That term was coined in the first edition of this encyclopedia in recognition of the fact that Nicholls's earlier "sense-of-wonder" definition in terms of the sublime was open to abuse in the form of vaguely mystical, pantheist – or, indeed, transcendent! – readings of sf texts. "Conceptual breakthrough", whereby the "sense of wonder" is inspired through paradigm shifts – a variant of the shift in perspective noted above – is a more focused term than "sublime", and perhaps a more helpful one. A further essay by Nicholls exploring the links between conceptual breakthrough and "sense of wonder" is "Doors and Breakthroughs" (in Frontier Crossings, anth 1987, ed Robert Jackson); Nicholls's argument here is further developed in "Big Dumb Objects and Cosmic Enigmas: The Love Affair between Space Fiction and the Transcendental" (in Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction, anth 2000, ed Gary Westfahl). The phrase Big Dumb Objects appeared in the second editions of this encyclopedia as a theme entry now largely discussed under the somewhat more academic Macrostructures.

We do contend that, pace Suvin, the concept of "sense of wonder" may be necessary if we are to understand the essence of sf that distinguishes it from other forms of fiction, including most Fantasy. The diamond is real, and cuts. But before we can use "sense of wonder" as a defining feature we must first know more accurately what fictional elements produce it. The discussion here does not pretend to do that, only to point in some possibly useful directions.

The task is made more difficult by the fact that "sense of wonder" has become a debased term even within sf Fandom, which these days is as likely to use it ironically, spelling and pronouncing it "sensawunna". This is in part because there are so many ways in which sf writers can counterfeit, and have counterfeited, the "sense of wonder", the simplest method being to introduce into the plot something (a) alien, and (b) very, very big. See Macrostructures for a discussion of a subgenre particularly subject to ersatz or automatic-pilot "sense of wonder" of this kind – yet which often contrives to produce the genuine article as well.

As we become older and at least in our own eyes more sophisticated, we are of course less likely to seek diamonds in dung-heaps. Perhaps younger readers find them more readily because, while they recognize a diamond when they see one, they haven't yet learned to recognize a dung-heap. In this respect the "sense of wonder" is a phenomenon of youth – but that does not make it any less real. [PN/CR]

see also: The Dig.

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