Is "Sense Of Wonder" Just A Code For Returning To Childhood?

Science fiction writers and fans clamor for a return to "sense of wonder," marveling at the richness of the universe, and technology's brilliance. But is this another way of saying "returning to childhood"?

It's a cliche to say "The Golden Age of science fiction is 14." When you're young and wide-eyed, all the universe's brilliance seems overwhelmingly new and awesome. Stories of exploration and conquest of the universe are fresh and thrilling, and the space hero's exploits feel like a proxy for your own process of finding your place in the world. It's the most awesome thing in the world, and you can keep experiencing that kind of excitement over and over again throughtout your life - I still watch the original Star Trek on DVD and get a little thrill of excitement (mixed with nostalgia) again.


But "sense of wonder," to me, is another way of talking about a child's awe at the amazing bounty of creation. And I can't help but wonder, when I hear people pining for "sense of wonder," if they're really just wishing for the return of childhood innocence. The phrase "sense of wonder," itself, evokes a sense of wide-eyed awe, a childlike amazement.

And over time, "My god, it's full of stars!" becomes "Hey, it's still full of stars!" And eventually, "Oh yeah, those stars? Still full of them." And finally "Stars. Full of. Yup."


As Peter Smith put it in the St. Petersburg Times back in 1986:

Science fiction fans call it the Sense Of Wonder. It's the feeling/knowledge that you're seeing something new, or something old in a new way. In many ways, the Sense Of Wonder can reaffirm your place in the universe, filling you with joyous, guileless awe.


A couple of years ago, in SF Crowsnest, Mark R. Leeper complained that the annual World Science Fiction Convention wasn't meeting his needs any more:

For some reason I feel the Worldcons of the 70s seemed to have more verve. Somehow Worldcons seem more staid and less energetic as there are fewer young and active attendees...
In fact, most of the authors who are currently writing do not seem to have such a strong following proportionally among the younger fans. Their prose is heavier and lacking in "sense of wonder." It appeals more to serious older readers. But fewer young people are going to Worldcons.


In other words, writers who appeal mostly to older science fiction readers are less likely to focus on "sense of wonder" and more likely to deal with knotty political or social issues.

And then there's Ted Chiang, interviewed in Locus in 2002:

Everyone refers to science fiction's ability to evoke a sense of wonder. That is definitely a goal of mine, because I remember the sense of wonder I experienced when I read science fiction when I was younger. I would like to be able to evoke that in other people.


Whenever people talk about "sense of wonder," it seems like they default to talking about childhood. And there's a certain nostalgia for that time, and a desire to recapture it or hold onto it somehow. It's no accident that Arthur C. Clarke, the dean of "sense of wonder" writing, has written on his tombstone, "Here lies Arthur C. Clarke. He never grew up and never stopped growing."


But here's the thing: growing up is important. We can't hold onto our innocence forever. Not that you can't stop and admire the awesomeness of the universe, of course — that never really goes away. (I do love me some space porn.) But I often think people who talk about "sense of wonder" are clamoring for more than just an appreciation of how cool space is, how amazing huge machines can be. They want that awareness of scale — the realization of how small we are and how big the universe is — to dominate, maybe even to drive the narrative. And in turn, that sense of bigness can obscure, or prevent, an awareness of how messy and complicated human beings are, and how likely we are to make a mess.

I started thinking about this last fall, when I read a blog post by Nancy Kress, talking about Somalian pirates holding an oil tanker hostage, and how it reminded her of a science fiction story she'd read when she was 15. At age 15, that story of someone capturing a spaceship felt awe-inspiring and awesome. But now, seeing something similar in real life, it just wasn't quite the same. She wrote:

Now that Somalian pirates have actually stolen a huge oil tanker, holding 25 people hostage and using organized crime as the transfer point for millions of dollars in ransom, my visceral response is not "awe." Outrage, disgust, fear are closer. The Somalian pirates' motive is greed, and the SF story hi-jackers' was (I think) patriotic freedom. However, it's the lack of "awe" that interests me at the moment.

Maybe the world has gotten too grubby and jaded for "awe." Or I have. At any rate, a "sense of wonder" is no longer what I look for in fiction, including SF. I don't want to be dazzled by things I never thought of before, even though often that seems to be what SF values. I want to be emotionally moved, involved at a visceral level with the characters and the situation, not with novelty or landscapes or gadgets or derring-do. Take, for instance, Elizabeth Bear's Hugo-winning story "Tide Line." I loved this story for the portrait of the dying sentient war machine who passes on its heritage to a child. Whatever devastated the Earth and sent it back to the Stone Age is barely mentioned. I'm sure that war was awesome, but it was probably also boring — UNTIL it's brought down to the level of personal suffering.

So — not a sense of wonder. A sense of vulnerable humanity. Which, now that I think about it, that space-ship piracy story probably lacked — or else I would remember something, anything, about at least one character?


Thing is, there are things you cannot see if you're too busy looking at everything with a "sense of wonder." And those things are often the stuff most worth talking about. I like science fiction that's gritty but hopeful, and politically realistic but still idealistic at its core. And it's hard to write science fiction that deals with complicated human problems, and stark political realities, when we're constantly pausing to admire our own ingenuity.


It's also hard not to look at the soon-to-be-uninhabitable cesspit our world is becoming, without asking "Did 'sense of wonder' help to fuck up the ice caps?" Since a big part of "sense of wonder" is not just "space is awesome" but also, "we can build huge awesome machines!"

It also feels a bit ooky: As Leeper points out, all indications are that the die-hard science-fiction readership is graying. A generation who grew up with Heinlein and Clarke is clinging to the genre as it ages, and younger readers aren't coming along in enough numbers to replace it. There's something a bit unsettling about older people asking to be talked to like teenagers.


So it's no accident that some of the most "sense of wonder-y" fiction I've read lately squares the circle, by featuring characters who are both ageless and impossibly old. I was thinking about this a lot after I read House Of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. All of the major characters in Suns are six million years old, partly thanks to life-extending technology and partly thanks to traveling in stasis at relativistic speeds. (Subjectively, they're still ancient, but they haven't experienced millions of years' consciousness.) And these quasi-immortal beings, who've watched civilizations rise and fall, constantly remind each other that they're still amazed by the richness of the universe. That's why they keep traveling, after almost the whole history of the human race: because they keep seeing new wonders and being amazed.

Reynolds gets to have it both ways, sort of — he writes about characters who are physically youthful and full of amazement, but they're also jaded and ancient. They're a good stand-in for the reader, who has probably read thousands of similar novels before, but is still looking for the next new thing.


The ageless, disconnected protagonist has become a bit of a trope of the new batch of space opera, as Alan DeNiro explained in his Rain Taxi review of The New Space Opera Volume 1:

In many of these stories, Earth-like physiology has mutated to a point of no return; virtual realities give way to virtual bodies and vice-versa. The anthology has a general inhuman pallor-to put it another way, humanity has been emulsified against the backdrop of far-flung space-but all too often, the fiction suffers because of the unexplored consequences of this stance. Like the protagonist in Greg Egan's "Glory," who is a molecular payload shot across space, many of the characters are, in essence, simulacra. People (if they can be called that) have to have their sharp edges smoothed over in order to survive in the recesses of the vacuum. And yet, how does a writer balance the needs of narrative when characters' motivations are, at best, flat? ("Always so sad, Debra: it's not good for the brain, you should take a break," a brutal assassin is told in the first story in the anthology, the inauspicious "Saving Tiamaat" by Gwyneth Jones). Of course, this impulse is spectacularly "retro," hearkening back to the origins of space opera in the early 20th century. As a lurid offshoot of the larger tree of adventure fiction, characterization was fast and loose, but it was a subgenre that was inquisitive as to its own metaphysics. In the current day, however, the metaphysics seem to come from the minutes of a transhumanist conference.


What's more disappointing is that in almost no cases is this disassociation from emotion made part of the story (something, ironically, that literary realist stories are often decried for in some genre circles); as an unexamined baseline, the affectless life forms plod through adventures whose outcomes appear meaningless against the larger backdrop of thousands of worlds, hundreds of civilizations. As Ian Macdonald's meandering narration in "Verthandi's Ring" tells the reader, "war was just another game to entities hundreds of thousands of years old, for whom death was a sleep and a forgetting." Again, this galactic void could be part of the observable texture of the narrative, picking up on how the enclosed space of a story-much like the sealed hull of an interstellar spaceship-can only contain so much prose.


Is it possible that the only way we can keep "sense of wonder" alive for the veteran reader is by turning to posthuman protagonists, who have seen it all before — except for the latest wonder? In other words, by clinging to "sense of wonder" so hard, do we end up jettisoning everything else, even the humanity of our protagonists? Even the foibles and emotional complexities that make people, well, wonderful?

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