“What makes SF compelling is not the ‘sense of wonder’ it can generate or its unmooring from reality, but that it creates a sort of lyrical transgression that can dissolve and redefine boundaries.”
Bear with me; I am going to meander a bit.
I am writing a chapter for Terra Ficta on displacement, transport, and escape in fantastika, and I am examining all the ways that readers and writers and observers (reviewers, critics, fans, etc.) of literature characterize the feeling of being removed from the world around them by a narrative. We humans seem to have a hunger for narrative, for ways to structure experience and action and the world. Sometimes we want narratives that reflect the world, as we or others understand it, and other times we want narratives that do not reflect “reality,” even if they comment on or question it. But what we also want is to be removed from the world, to be even momentarily taken somewhere else where our hopes and despairs can be released and exercised. As I write about this topic, I am looking at my own reading experience and finding out what feeds me in fantastic literature. One realization I have had is that what drew me specifically to science fiction as a teenager was the way in which it tried to blend aspects of reality with extrapolation and wonder and generate a feeling of (often ecstatic) release, which is often characterized as “sense of wonder.”
Until just a few years ago I embraced the idea of “sense of wonder” even as I tried to qualify it and investigate its workings and effects. But as I read more broadly I found that adolescent sense of awe diminishing, to the point where I now question the sense of wonder’s necessary centrality as an effect of reading. The more I look at my reading life, the more obvious this has become. This feeling became more acute as I roamed more widely as a reader within and outside of the genre, not just into fantasy or weird fiction or surrealism but to alternate science fictions (from Octavia Butler’s fusions to Seb Doubinsky’s head trips). What struck me was the realization that the “sense of wonder” as usually delineated was a momentary thrill, one that might cause some brief shift in perspective but that generally left the stars in place. Once the sensation subsided it left little to chew on. It was not the effect of a satiating narrative; it often left you hungry and impelled you to search for more of the same.
This is not an indictment of wonder itself, or of its imaginative effects. As I wrote two years ago “Wonder changes the gravity of the imagination and pulls the improbable and impossible and miraculous and marvelous inside us.” Our capacity for wonder, for marveling and being surprised and stimulated by something unexpected, is a vital part of experience. But it is not a result; it is a process. What has made the sense of wonder less satisfying is that it is a momentary feeling; your feet only leave the ground for a moment, for that instance of discovery and its residual pleasure. And as I read and write more I find that this is not enough. I don’t want to be dazzled or led away from contemplation by wonder; I don’t want some limited moment that shapes a story’s effects into a simple tool or pleasure. I want to be unmoored and befuddled, confronted and illuminated, precisely not knowing what my reaction will be or if the feeling will subside or just what it is doing to me as I feel it. I want wonder, but not just wonder; I want to be led by wonder, abandoned by wonder, freed by wonder. I want it to burn something away from my mind, or reveal something I could not grasp or accept. I want wonder to bring me somewhere, but not to just transport me.
If SF and Fantastika and [insert broad genre designation here] are to maximize the wonder of the stories being told and shared and talked about, to make stories that are significant, challenging, and perception-altering, we have to continue opening up the literary field as writers, readers, editors, fans, and observers. That means not just reading new works, but opening up to all of the possibilities and potentials that are only sporadically included in Euro-American fantastika as art form and community. I read Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s column at Strange Horizons and was struck by many things she wrote, such as “wondering how much of our perceptions are shaped by the escapist literature we’ve read.” I had to stop and think for awhile about that notion, that fantastic literature was dangerous on one level because it could displace us and yet re-instill prejudices and assumptions in our minds while feeling like it was different and inspiring. This brought my thinking around to John Clute’s observation that even bad SF can produce a “sense of wonder” because it performs the textual maneuvers and rituals that stimulate the emotional response that we are seeking. “Sense of wonder” does not renew us or confront us; it creates a limited, almost rote response.
What a limited notion of “sense of wonder,” and indeed a limited sense of what “SF” or “fantasy” or most any genre designation, does is create something that has the sensation of newness but that is really something familiar repackaged or given a twist. This extends not just to the ideas in a story but to its textual elements and its narrative structure and elaborations. One of the aspects of the literary field that “sense of wonder” leaves intact is the constraint of what constitutes a proper vision or theme, or even what constitutes proper delivery of the story, such as condemning a novel as not being SF because of its eloquent language or attention to details that are supposedly only appealing to women. These kind of limits are precisely about keeping the stars in their place, a refusal of imagination. This sort of parochialism reduces wonder to a comfort food, a staple that barely feeds us, literary Wonder Bread.
The ability to think past accepted ideas, to cross boundaries and to revel in wonder is useless if all we do is use them to distract ourselves or let ourselves be lulled by fascinating thoughts that do not linger. We need to either abandon the comforts of “sense of wonder” or rework the notion to crack open our realities and flood our stories with everything that the worlds around us and within us have to offer. We need to stop being amazed and beguiled and start letting ourselves be split apart and inundated, to read and promote and discuss stories that shake our foundations and topple us into deep waters that force us to learn new ways to swim and navigate. “The best fantastika reveals existence to us, presents other ways to examine it, and pushes us to understand our own positionality and presumptions by euphorically engaging these uncommon visions and letting them change us.”
It will always be a struggle to include the full range of existence; we can never hope to encompass the true breadth of human experience. But until we commit to trying to do so, relentlessly and bravely and openly and imperfectly, the stars will just lie there in the sky.