Has science fiction’s sensawunda lost its sense of wonder?

Paul Raven @ 22-11-2008

Tomorrow, The Stars - old science fiction anthology coverEveryone looks for something a little different from their fiction fix, science fiction readers included. But science fiction is also a special case, because it has been traditionally tied to the “sense of wonder” – that gosh-wow feeling engendered by reading about something previously inconceivable. Indeed, sensawunda used to be described by some writers and critics (whether correctly or not) as the core differential between science fiction and ‘regular’ fiction. [image uploaded by Jim Linwood]

But is that still the case? For example, the Mundane SF manifesto would appear to argue against sensawunda’s necessity and relevance to modern readers. And here’s Nancy Kress musing on the Somalian pirates’ tanker hijack:

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.

Speaking personally, I’ve no objection to sensawunda in my science fiction, but the older I get and the more I read (fiction or otherwise) the more my tastes seem to align with Nancy’s – I want stories about people first and foremost. Sensawunda is an extra – a side-dish, if you like, or a piquant sauce.

What about you lot? Has reality and endless CGI movies jaded you, too, or do starships and rayguns still flick your switches?

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8 Responses to “Has science fiction’s sensawunda lost its sense of wonder?”

  1. Deb Geisler says:

    I think we may not be so much jaded as we are, as a friend puts it, “living in the future.” We’ve seen the science fictional imagination at work for many years, now, and we also have so much of the future that SF showed us when we were younger (including, of course, some of the bad bits) that the “future” isn’t as goshwowcool. But the desire for interesting, believable characters isn’t going to change. We want to know what the people of tomorrow will be like — are they similar to us? what has changed? can we still feel empathy with them? what parts of the human condition are eternal?

    One of the most fascinating “hard SF” books I ever read was Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. It was fascinating because it focused so much on the science…while, at the same time, helping us to get into the minds of both the humans and the aliens — aliens who clearly had a very different understanding of their universe than did the humans.

    From my point of view, the very best SF stories continue this tradition, giving me a sensawunda that is inextricably linked with the understanding of the mind (and culture, society, place in the universe, etc.).

    Wish I had a ray gun…a stunner would be so *nice* sometimes.

  2. Kian says:

    Sensawanda (if I understand it correctly) for me is probably a lot different to what I think people used to hold in awe. Large spaceships with hyper drives and majestic cities with spiraling towers are nice but that all there is to it, especially if its the “norm” in the setting.

    Saying that however I absolutely love a well developed world or system. Its why I love the ideas in the Mars trilogy where you see technology slowly advances and the world changes as you progress through the story and Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space, where the Golden Age of man has left a twisted and corrupted city, ravaged by a tech virus and people try to scramble to rebuild and cope with the loss. However the world can be perfectly designed and amasing but without character interaction and struggles walking you through it, it seems to diminish it and in such cases I would rather read flavour text on it in an RPG book rather than a Sci Fi on it. I think that what I’m trying to get at is that I like to see how characters deal with the environment and its limitations more than simply placing them in a Utopian environment.

    (I hope I havn’t entirely lost the point ^_^).

  3. Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) says:

    Starships and rayguns don’t have much to do with sensawunda anymore; they’re for sure not things that we’ve never conceived of anymore. I still get a thrill out of a new idea, or a new vision of what the universe might be like; but I’ve always preferred to have that universe inhabited by interesting beings whose motives I can understand at least a little. I guess I’m saying that I want both, though it’s true that as I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself more and more interested in the human (in the broadest sense) side of the stories I read and watch. And on the gripping hand, I always did get some of my sensawunda from the original source: reading books on physics, mathematics, biology, etc. There are some really amazing things in this universe, and some really amazing people trying to understand them. SF doesn’t have a monopoly, which is a good thing.

  4. Steve Davidson says:

    I still want my sensawunda. Seeing places I’ve never seen, learning about technologies that don’t yet exist, watching the curtain open and being surprised by what appears is still what I look for in a good science fiction novel. Maybe the fiction-appreciation cells of my brain have atrophied over the years, but I find the ‘new’ stories that concentrate on some angst-ridden characters with interesting ‘flaws’ that provide their motivation and create their conflicts to be boring. Give me a good old enigmatic alien race anytime.

  5. Sarah Ennals says:

    I agree with the previous poster that the angst-for-the-sake-of-angst is offputting. For an example of “UR doin it rite,” John Wyndham is still some of my favourite character-driven SF – he takes the world of his time, drops in *one* SF element, and imagines how people would react.

  6. Gerry M. Allen says:

    Without the sense of wonder, science fiction is just…well… fiction. I’ve re-read Van Vogt and “Doc” Smith many times, because the scope and depth of those futures still get to me. A previous comment mentioned Hal Clement — arguably the most science drenched science fiction, yet his stories still dealt with very human concerns. So, it doesn’t have to be either/or; good science fiction stirs my sense of wonder while telling a fine story populated by rounded characters.

  7. Blue Tyson says:

    Something bizarre going on in her head compared to the rest of us perhaps when she sees ‘pirate story’ and thinks SF as opposed to ‘more symptoms of the problems of the region’?

    Certainly nothing new about ambitious pirates. Pretty low rent compared to the bandits who have disposed of the odd trillion recently, too.

    Ordinary people in ordinary situations doing average things makes for a pretty ordinary story. Some may even go so far as to call that boring. 🙂

  8. LBalsam says:

    If I didn’t want to read about new ideas I wouldn’t read science fiction.

    That being said, any work of fiction should be well written with good characters. Too often characters in science fiction are props to support the story line.

    The strength of science fiction is creating a new world, seeing how characters react to this world and the actions that happen as a result of those reactions.