Sense of wonder

Sense of wonder

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A sense of wonder is an intellectual and emotional state frequently invoked in discussions of science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

. 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 manish arya and khadnya term sense of wonder is defined as follows:
In the introductory section of his essay 'On the Grotesque in Science Fiction', Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Professor of English, DePauw University
DePauw University
DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, USA, is a private, national liberal arts college with an enrollment of approximately 2,400 students. The school has a Methodist heritage and was originally known as Indiana Asbury University. DePauw is a member of both the Great Lakes Colleges Association...

, states:
John Clute and Peter Nicholls
Peter Nicholls (writer)
Peter Nicholls is an Australian literary scholar and critic. He is the creator and a co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction ....

 associate the experience with that of the "conceptual breakthrough" or "paradigm shift
Paradigm shift
A Paradigm shift is, according to Thomas Kuhn in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , a change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms, within the ruling theory of science...

" (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
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, originally released as Star Wars, is a 1977 American epic space opera film, written and directed by George Lucas. It is the first of six films released in the Star Wars saga: two subsequent films complete the original trilogy, while a prequel trilogy completes the...

, 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
Iain Banks
Iain Banks is a Scottish writer. He writes mainstream fiction under the name Iain Banks, and science fiction as Iain M. Banks, including the initial of his adopted middle name Menzies...

's Feersum Endjinn
Feersum Endjinn
Feersum Endjinn is a science fiction novel by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, first published in 1994. It won a British Science Fiction Association Award in 1994.It was Banks' second science fiction novel not based or set within the Culture universe....


George Mann
George Mann (writer)
George Mann is an author and editor, primarily in genre fiction. He was born in Darlington, County Durham in 1978. He works and lives in Nottinghamshire, England....

 suggests that this ‘sense of wonder’ is associated only with science fiction as distinct from science fantasy, stating:
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;” 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,
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:
Academic criticism of science fiction literature (Robu 1988) identifies the idea of the sublime
Sublime (literary)
The sublime is a form of expression in literature in which the author refers to things in nature or art that affect the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power. It is calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur...

 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
University of Iowa
The University of Iowa is a public state-supported research university located in Iowa City, Iowa, United States. It is the oldest public university in the state. The university is organized into eleven colleges granting undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees...

, Brooks Landon says:
Edward James
Edward James (historian)
Edward James is Professor of Medieval History at University College, Dublin. He received a BA 1968; DPhil in 1975. He was a Lecturer, then College Lecturer, at the Department of Medieval History, University College Dublin from 1970-1978...

 quotes from Aldiss
Brian Aldiss
Brian Wilson Aldiss, OBE is an English author of both general fiction and science fiction. His byline reads either Brian W. Aldiss or simply Brian Aldiss. Greatly influenced by science fiction pioneer H. G. Wells, Aldiss is a vice-president of the international H. G. Wells Society...

 and Wingrove’s history of science fiction in support of the above suggestion as to the origin of the ‘sense of wonder’ in SF, as follows:
Paul K. Alkon in his book Science Fiction before 1900. Imagination Discovers Technology makes a similar point:
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 ...",

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:
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,
As an example James takes the short story ‘The Nine Billion Names of God
The Nine Billion Names of God
"The Nine Billion Names of God" is a 1953 science fiction short story by Arthur C. Clarke. The story was the winner of the retrospective Hugo Award for Best Short Story for the year 1954.-Plot summary:...

’ by Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, CBE, FRAS was a British science fiction author, inventor, and futurist, famous for his short stories and novels, among them 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as a host and commentator in the British television series Mysterious World. For many years, Robert A. Heinlein,...

. He explains:
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 ..." Editor and SF researcher Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley (writer)
Michael Ashley is a British bibliographer, author and editor of science fiction, mystery, and fantasy.He edits the long-running Mammoth Book series of short story anthologies, each arranged around a particular theme in mystery, fantasy, or science fiction...

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?”

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
John W. Campbell
John Wood Campbell, Jr. was an influential figure in American science fiction. As editor of Astounding Science Fiction , from late 1937 until his death, he is generally credited with shaping the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction.Isaac Asimov called Campbell "the most powerful force in...

 he says:
Perhaps the single most famous example of "sensawunda" in all of science fiction involves a neologism, from the work of A. E. van Vogt
A. E. van Vogt
Alfred Elton van Vogt was a Canadian-born science fiction author regarded by some as one of the most popular and complex science fiction writers of the mid-twentieth century: the "Golden Age" of the genre....

 (Moskowitz 1974):
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." The reason he suggests is that,
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." Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. explains the difference between these two categories as follows::
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." He gives as an example the android (T-1000) in the second 'Terminator
Terminator (franchise)
The Terminator series is a science fiction franchise encompassing a series of films and other media concerning battles between Skynet's artificially intelligent machine network, and John Connor's Resistance forces and the rest of the human race....

' film Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a 1991 science fiction action film directed by James Cameron and written by Cameron and William Wisher Jr.. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, and Edward Furlong...

, 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

Feminist Viewpoint

Sharona Ben-Tov in her book The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality explores SF's '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'. In his review of Ben-Tov’s work for the SF critical journal Extrapolation David Dalgleish, quoting from the text, points out that,


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
David Langford
David Rowland Langford is a British author, editor and critic, largely active within the science fiction field. He publishes the science fiction fanzine and newsletter Ansible.-Personal background:...

 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 ..."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
    Stanley Kubrick
    Stanley Kubrick was an American film director, writer, producer, and photographer who lived in England during most of the last four decades of his career...

     (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
    Extrapolation (journal)
    Extrapolation is an American academic journal covering speculative fiction. It was founded in 1959 by Thomas D. Clareson and was initially published at the College of Wooster. In 1979 it moved to the Kent State University Press. A decade later, Clareson stepped down as editor and was succeeded by...

    . Kent: Spring 2006.Vol. 47, Iss. 1; page. 103

  • "He [ Stephen Baxter
    Stephen Baxter
    Stephen Baxter is a prolific British hard science fiction author. He has degrees in mathematics and engineering.- Writing style :...

     ] 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
    Richard A. Lovett
    Richard A. Lovett is an American science fiction author from Portland, Oregon. He has written numerous short stories and factual articles that have appeared in multiple literary and scientific journals, including Analog Science Fiction and Fact, National Geographic News, Nature, New Scientist,...

    . 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
    Jack Williamson
    John Stewart Williamson , who wrote as Jack Williamson was a U.S. writer often referred to as the "Dean of Science Fiction" following the death in 1988 of Robert A...

    . 'Recollections of Analog,' Analog Science Fiction & Fact. New York: Jan 2000. Vol. 120, Iss. 1; page. 94