Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 23, 2005

I Got Dem Ol’ Sense of Wonder Blues Again, Mama

For thirty years I was absolutely in love with science fiction. It comprised well over 90% of my pleasure reading during those decades, including prozines and Best-of-the-Year anthologies and virtually every major novel that was published. Rarely did I read anything other than science fiction, since neither mainstream fiction nor nonfiction gave me the same pleasure and satisfaction science fiction did.

Then abruptly in 1995 I burned out on science fiction. The reasons are too complex to delve into here, although the tip off the iceberg was forcing myself to read too many major books and too many pieces of short fiction for completist reasons rather than for pleasure.

The next two years or so I read very little science fiction at all. Instead I sampled many types of reading that I had virtually ignored for my entire adult life. Literature, historical fiction, Chinese fiction, nonfiction. And I gradually realized something important about all that new stuff I was reading: while not all of it was wonderful, the satisfaction I received from it was similar to the amount of satisfaction I received from science fiction.

In the decade since, I’ve drifted back to science fiction. It now comprises about 60% of my total reading material. One major difference is that now I’m considerably more critical about the SF I read. After all, when you’re no longer tied to SF as the only form of reading pleasure, you can be choosier as to which SF you read: with a wider range of books to read you can limit yourself to the better quality of what you formerly read.

So the question I’ve tried to answer is this: if I can get equal pleasure from both SF and non-SF, then apparently the sfnal-ness of the fiction is not the prime ingredient which is providing my pleasure. So what ingredient is?

The first ingredient I considered was the literary qualities of the fiction, because I tend to prefer SF which straddles the border between pure genre and literary rather than the adventure-hard science stuff. But I immediately rejected that possibility because, if it was only–or even primarily–the literary qualities which were pleasing me, why would I have ever drifted back to science fiction rather than devote the rest of my life to reading Dickens-Hemingway-Faulkner-Morrison etc?

Next I began looking back at my favorite books of the past decade, both SF and non-SF. The Chinese classics Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh featured worlds so different from my own–or anything with which I was familiar–that their exoticism was truly exciting. I was as much fascinated emotionally by the landscapes in which they took place as I was excited intellectually by the cultures themselves. Historical novels such as Lemprière’s Dictionary had a similar effect on me, a rich, foreign setting combined with philosophical thoughtfulness.

And, of course, the absolutely wonderful Andrea Barrett who so excited me with her love of natural science (Ship Fever), Chinese culture (The Middle Kingdom) and the marvelous exploration of unexplored territory (Voyage of the Narwhal). It soon became obvious that what all these works had in common was sense of wonder although giving it a name only seemed to exasperate the problem, because when I began seeking a definition of what I meant by the phrase sense of wonder I quickly found it to be as frustrating as defining science fiction itself. But I’ve never been the type of person to shy away from a philosophical argument, so I kept hacking away at the phrase trying to isolate its essential meaning. Several facts eventually came to my rescue.

First, while defining science fiction is dealing with absolutes, since if it is to have any sense at all, science fiction must mean basically the same thing to all people, defining sense of wonder is a relative matter since what is truly wondrous for one person might be totally mundane for another.

Second, a work of literature can affect a person on three different levels: intellectually, emotionally, or viscerally. Granted the dictionary definitions of “emotionally” and “viscerally” are so close as to be almost interchangeable, but for my purposes I consider the former to be higher emotions such as love and loyalty while the latter generally incorporate baser emotions such as fear and loathing.

None of the three levels are intrinsically better or more laudable than the others; in fact, a glance at either bestseller lists or lists of award-winners will likely reveal a fair cross-section of all three amply represented. Horror novels obviously fall into the “visceral” category while romances into “emotional”. Action novels are “emotional” unless they incorporate large elements of gore and violence, in which case they become “visceral”. Mystery novels tend to be “intellectual” but thrillers walk the line between “emotional” and “visceral”.

So what does all of this have to do with sense of wonder? Well, that’s the relative part of the equation. I do not think that what I consider wondrous is “emotional” because I do not particularly like sequels or open-ended series, and if it were my emotions providing my wondrous experience then I would be anxious to return to the scene of the wonder to experience it again in only-slightly altered form. Nor is it “visceral” because I don’t like being manipulated and such fiction generally works on such a gut, instinctual level that, for me at least, it involves some element of overt or covert manipulation.

But what I definitely do enjoy in a work of fiction is being stimulated intellectually. When something I read excites me–whether it is a truly exotic setting, or a thought-provoking premise, or delving into a character’s passion for some artistic or scientific pursuit–I immediately want to learn more about that culture or its inhabitants or the particularly artform loved so deeply by the character or the science that has sparked so much enthusiasm. I enjoy thinking about the ramifications of the story itself as much as I love delving deeper into it.

So sense of wonder, at least for me, is partly the intellectual stimulation provided by a particularly outstanding piece of fiction. I’m sure that many other science fiction fans feel the same way, since the phrase sense of wonder is as often applied to thought-provoking works about scientific endeavors and philosophical concepts as it is to fast-paced action adventure. I suspect that for every SF fan whose sense of wonder is “emotional” in works such as E.E. Smith’s intergalactic adventures or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ scientific romances, or the latest Star Trek / Star Wars novels, there is another fan whose sense of wonder is “intellectual” in such works as Olaf Stapledon’s philosophical epics and Arthur C. Clarke’s scientific explorations. And that’s wonderful (no pun intended), because the real strength of the science fiction field lies in its ability to cover such a broad spectrum of tastes. Other genres such as mysteries, horror, and romance have very limited ranges by comparison. You don’t see too many “intellectual” experiences in romances–all right, maybe you do, but I’m not a particular connoisseur of romances–while SF straddles intellectual, emotional, and visceral quite easily and quite frequently.

So what about you? What excites your own sense of wonder? I would be very interested in learning what excites other readers about their choice of reading matter.

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