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Friday, July 23, 2010

Science Fiction and the Sensawunda

The other day I wrote about what makes a good science fiction movie. In the comments, a number of people quoted the phrase "sense of wonder" (or "sensawunda," as many fans like to abbreviate it). We've heard this phrase before. Some have argued that science fiction now lacks "sensawunda," and others have argued that "sensawunda" is one of the defining characteristics of science fiction--specifically, good science fiction. But the thing that always surprises me about such discussions is that few people have actually provided an explanation for what "sensawunda" is, let alone how it operates within the movies and novels they so enjoy. And when someone points to an example, I'm even more surprised that the thing in question is hardly surprising at all. Maybe the "what is it" question is a good place to start to figure this out.

While definitions vary from critic to critic, most agree that "sensawunda" is some sort of paradigm shift (a phrase from John Clute and Peter Nicholls, but not an original phrase) in much the same way as the phrase is used in science: a change of our basic assumptions about something (in this case, literature and reality). If that be the case, then "sensawunda" in science fiction relies entirely upon the genre's speculative elements, since anything that does not shift us from the present in a fundamental way cannot produce the effect (at least for most).

But now we run into a problem with the concept. Science fiction has largely become a self-referential genre. While the intention of authors is likely not to look to the past of the genre, that doesn't change the fact that almost everything in contemporary science fiction has already been done before. Contemporary science fiction is, for better or worse, a genre that is always looking to its golden past, always conjuring images and ideas presented at a time when the genre inspired and shocked people based solely on its ability to present a vision of the future not found elsewhere (wondrous or terrifying futures, depending where you looked). And if science fiction is self-referential, replicating the same references without realizing it is doing so, then "sensawunda" no longer functions. It can't--at least not for those who are well read in the genre. "Sensawunda" relies on some new thing (the novum) that draws us out of our comfort zone of reality and gives us a new reality, one tinged with the speculative details of a future that may or may not be (science fiction has never been a predictive genre). But this can't happen multiple times for the same thing in different formats (i.e. different authors writing about the same concept). We've already seen it. The surprise comes, perhaps, from the movement of the plot, but that's not something isolated to science fiction, let alone genre fiction.

If all this is true, then that means "sensawunda" is dead for the old, and lively for the new in almost all cases. New readers certainly feel the moment we all secretly mourn, while old writers continue reading for...what? What is it about contemporary science fiction that keeps us reading, despite the near bi-monthly pronouncement of the genre's death? Why do we still go to science fiction movies? Why do we want to see a possible future when we crack the first page of a new science fiction book? It's not "sensawunda." I suspect we're all aware on some level that the "sensawunda" is gone--although, maybe it still exists in the movies simply because they visualize things we've only dreams about or read in books.

I suppose the question I'm asking is whether we're reading science fiction because of loyalty to the genre, a perspective we've adopted within ourselves that constantly looks forward (even to the bad), or simply an interest in the furniture of the genre (spaceships, aliens, future technology, and so on). I'm a pessimist, so I lean more towards the last of these by default. But I could be wrong. Maybe we are loyal to the genre and in possession of that future-oriented mentality.

What do you think?

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  1. It is impossible for every idea to have been done before. To say that means that ideas are akin to a natural resource and finite. This is doubly so for the speculative genres. That's right; the speculative genres have two times infinity ideas at their fingertips. Writers just tend to gravitate to what's known because we're constantly taught to base stories almost wholly on character and plot. We're also taught to write what we know, and if all we know are Tolkein-esque fantasies or Doc Smith space operas, then that is what we are going to draw on in our pool of inspiration. Until science is figured out in totality, SF will exist; SF writers just need to look outside the pool of the common sciences that are usually exploited. How many stories do you know based on the Ulam Sprial? Or Adiabatic Invariants? Both concepts could easily be used to craft a good SF story and evoke the sensawunda. Current SF is far too self-referential, that's why it's "dying."

  2. Adam: Well, no, everything has been done before. All we are doing now is expanding upon ideas that already exist. Even when you get right down to the fundamentals, things repeat naseum. Narrative is never original.

    Even when you talk about things like those you mentioned in your comment, we're talking about ideas that have been approached before, perhaps in different form and by different names. Even when you throw out "new ideas," they are also self-referential. There are very few "new ideas" in science that are not self-referential. Massive, new, and unexpected discoveries are rarer than we'd like to belief.

    And current SF isn't dying. SF has never been "dying." If that were true, SF films would not be where they are now. Let's not pull that old hat out of the bag again :P

  3. Here is a great short-SF concerned with this question:

    The future of art & copyright in a short sci-fi story- Melancholy Elephants – by Spider Robinson

    “Not as fast as artists breed. Do you know about the great split in literature at the beginning of the twentieth century? The mainstream essentially abandoned the Novel of Ideas after Henry James, and turned its collective attention to the Novel of Character. They had sucked that dry by mid-century, and they’re still chewing on the pulp today. Meanwhile a small group of writers, desperate for something new to write about, for a new story to tell, invented a new genre called science fiction. They mined the future for ideas. The infinite future—like the infinite coal and oil and copper they had then too. In less than a century they had mined it out; there hasn’t been a genuinely original idea in science fiction in over fifty years. Fantasy has always been touted as the `literature of infinite possibility’—but there is even a theoretical upper limit to the `meaningfully impossible,’ and we are fast reaching it.”

    Isn’t this the problem the Q Continuum in Star Trek faced? I think Q said that most of its kind committed suicide for that they’ve learnt all there was to learn, done all there was to do. All games played, all dreams dreamed, nothing new under the sky was to be found anymore.

    And don’t we all experience this problem already these days? Have you people never thought and felt that you’ve already seen that movie, read that book or heard that song before for that they all featured the same plot, the same rhythm? On Amazon you can read many reviews where people claim that the author stole something from someone else. Well, hard to come up with something unique already, even in SF?

    Regarding a "sense of wonder" it's not of any use to add more rules to games, i.e. make things more complicated. Then it is just about endless repetition.

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  5. XiXiDu: Often what separates good science fiction stories (for me) from the references it makes to the past is the ability to the creator to tell it in a way that hasn't been told before (i.e. to be compelling). But that's a hard thing to describe.

  6. Doug S.10:44 AM

    Well, they do say that "the Golden Age of science fiction is 13."

  7. Who says that? I've never heard that before :P