Sense of Wonder

galaxy fibonacci

So I was reading for review a recent publication of Christian Fantasy and Science Fiction. I realize that a great many (if not most) of the people I know in the sf/f world roll their eyes out of their heads at the idea of Christian sf/f, and I also know that there is a lot of bad Christian fiction out there. As there is in any subgenre. But this particular bad, the editors of this anthology admitted right up front.

Crankshaw and Janz—both trained in the sciences, one with a PhD in Electrical Engineering, the other with a degree in Organic Chemistry—have encountered plenty of anti-Christian rhetoric in our supposedly open and acceptance-embracing SFnal world, and they’ve read plenty of the bad stuff.


In talking about the theme of this anthology, Crankshaw said: Mysteries frighten us. We prefer certainty, simple explanations, and neat categories. Even when we praise ambiguity in fiction, in real life we often try to cram every fact, every event, and every person into the clear narrative of our worldview. But life is full of mysteries. . .”

And so their goal was to seek stories that made room for the mysterious, that “asked questions even though they didn’t know the answers, that examined the clues even when they were contradictory and nonsensical.” They wanted stories that were as untidy and as theologically imprecise as the Bible itself.

Janz, in her introduction, disclosed that not everyone they published identifies as Christian. They wanted thought-provoking stories, ones that resonated with them even those that made them uncomfortable. She said:

Authenticity was key. Christians may roll their eyes at the latest story about an evil minister or an oppressive patriarchal monotheistic fantasy kingdom, populated by one-dimensional religious characters bearing no resemblance to the people we actually encounter at church. But traditional Christian fiction doesn’t always do better in the realism department, with its strawman atheists argued into awed silence by smart Christians, or its happily-ever-after conversion narratives.

What I read was a mixture of sf, fantasy, and horror. Many of the endings, if not most, left the reader with questions rather than furnishing dogmatic answers. And several of the stories did that rare thing, evoked a sense of wonder. If you’re interested, here’s my review, otherwise, moving on.

What is sense of wonder? As always, different people will say different things.

Some define sense of wonder as the thrill of vicarious experience. Most of us are never going to have the kinds of experiences we like to read about. We wouldn’t want to, in most cases. That’s why a lot of us like books, film, comics, games: we love gaining experience without having to endure the grim reality side of adventure, extreme risk, and insane stakes.

The vicarious experience is one of humanity’s most amazing abilities. Among other attributes (and drawbacks), it can help us to understand, and empathize with, others. We humans have been inventing things we couldn’t possibly experience ever since humans found tools to record symbols of imagination and sense of wonder, dread, and question.

Peter pan

When you’re a kid, wonder, dread, and question exist all around you. Right now, I want to focus on the wonder part of the big three.

One of the earliest zaps of magic that I remember was when I was five, and I was taken to see the Disney Peter Pan. When Peter Pan flung that glowing fairy dust on Wendy and she flew out the window over the city of London and up into the sky, for years after I picked up any sparkly stuff I found and doused my head with it, in hopes I’d get to fly.

I remember when I was eight or nine, my mom yelling at me for having sand in my hair yet again, and me having to stand at the sink to have it scrubbed out. The scrubbing was not pleasant, but far worse was the disappointment of another failure to find fairy dust. That sand had sparkled in the sun. It could have been fairy dust!

ancient egypt art

About that same time I got the sfnal zap of wonder when I read Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books. The idea that people could be utterly different, and fascinating, yet still be your friends, was a window-opener to me. Until then, different cultures as taught in our social studies classes focused on “savages” and “primitives” of various sorts, the implication always that they were uncivilized and dangerous, and of course we would have to either fight or civilize them. As for civilized people, all governments but democracy were bad, and we had to enlighten all those ignorant old cultures.

As for science fiction, the only kind I came across as a kid was horror, because of course insectoids or dinosaur-aliens or bug-eyed green men would want to conquer us, and carry off females for unspeakable purposes. (What an insect would want with a mammalian female was never made clear. We just knew that it took patriotic two-fisted white heroes to bring those helpless ladies in their tight clothes and high heels back to safety.)

Henry James observed that a good novel connects with the reader both through the resonance of the familiar (that sense of yes, this is so true!) and through surprise. That sense of the familiar doesn’t have to be true fact, but it does have to be convincing. We have to believe in its truth, even if for only the length of the story.

Conviction as well as surprise are tougher to come by when one has been reading one’s favorite genre for decades. Old gray-hairs like me still love sf and f, but we’ve read a lot. So much of our reading has gradually altered to the comfort of the familiar, with goshwow being rare. (I don’t consider shock and horror plot-beats the same as the thrill of wonder, but maybe you do.)

fibonacci snail

Sense of wonder, to me, breaks the boundaries of comfortable assumption and opens a window or a trapdoor, revealing a breathtaking layer beyond. Exploration—even if only through imagination—question—redefinition that causes a widening of those comfy boundaries, or even a breaking. A lifetime of snug can become smug unless we examine those boundaries once in a while.

We are creatures of patterns, and Plato wrote two thousand years ago about our longing for patterns that promise glimpses of even larger patterns, beyond the interlocking wheels of sun and stars.

Here are a couple of quotes from contemporaries who not only never met, but I strongly suspect would have loathed one another’s work if they had encountered it: Vladimir Nabokov and J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s fascinating that these two very different writers could come up with the same images: the escaping prisoner, and the thrill of joy. Or maybe it’s not so surprising, as these guys’ early lives were shadowed by the violence of war and destruction on a very large scale.

beauty image

Here is Nabokov, after he talks about sense of wonder in fiction:

In my example memory played an essential though unconscious part and everything depended upon the perfect fusion of past and present. The inspiration of genius adds a third ingredient: it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together in a sudden flash; thus the entire cycle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist.

It is a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the non-ego rushing in to save the prisoner—who is already dancing in the open.


And here is Tolkien, in his Essay on Fairy Stories:

…this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce extremely well, is not essentially “escapist” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatasrophe, of sorrow and failure.
The possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy. Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

How do you define sense of wonder, and what reading has evoked it for you, either when you were small, or lately?



Sense of Wonder — 18 Comments

  1. My sense of wonder goes to vicarious experience, experiences I couldn’t have in real life, the kind that I can only have in fiction. Being brought to places and things that “blow me away”. Be it a flyover of the Ringworld, or entering into Rivendell, or encountering a Dragon, those invoke the sense of wonder in me.

  2. Joy poignant as grief–that is exactly how I experience some joys. So sharp and tear-pricking, and I’ve never been sure why, but have assumed it’s because they are so precious, so unexpected (just a gift of the moment), so impossible to hold onto, but so completely, wholly beautiful/blissful/good in the moment, that I just feel overcome.

    I feel that way reading sometimes too. It’s not so much the wondrous settings or fabulous creatures or happenings of a story that do it for me (I enjoy those a lot, but they don’t evoke that feeling, is all), but sometimes a character will have a perception of connection, or an insight, or an experience like what I described above, and then I’ll feel that feeling vicariously, through the character.

    • Oh, yes! Joy so beautiful one has to cry. I think that might be what Tolkien meant when he had Faramir say that tears were the wine of blessedness. I will get that feeling from a piece of music so glorious it’s overwhelming–I remember it first when I was a kid, and heard a renowned children’s choir from Korea sing a complicated arrangement of a medieval Christmas song. I get that from beautiful places, too.

  3. One of the things that militates against the sense of wonder is the increasing use of magic as a technology. Very little of the magic in Harry Potter/I> feels very, well, magical. The striking exceptions being the Patronus in Prisoner and the (no that’s a spoiler in that phrasing) — the deer in Hallows.

    You note that both were a surprise to the viewpoint character.

    • Yeah–the Potter magic evoked delight when the names were fun, but then I found the entire magic system pretty pointless. I really wish I could have discovered those books at age ten! But I did get some vicarious pleasure out of my students reading them, when I taught school.

  4. for me it was Our Mister Sun and Hemo the Magnificent, two made-for-kids documovies, they showed us in grade school: Astronomy and biology. These gave me a feeling of overarching, natural and supernatural wonder, and personal, not impersonal, caring.

  5. I think the only time I got a sense of wonder from reading was my first read of Lord of the Rings some fifty years ago. More often I experience the wonder from music or sublime natural beauty.

    • That first (and for a long time, subsequent readings as well) and the King Arthur stories of Merlin, Lancelot du Lac, the quest tales of Arthur’s war band, before he married Guinevere and settled down to be King. I did notice even at that early age that marriage spoiled the life adventurous.

      And a lot of music still does it for me, but on the page, not at all.

      But the moon glimpsed anywhere, anytime, still does it, every time. And trees.

      Also well tended, fertile agricultural places as in the Delmarva region. And landscapes, as in the Appalachians and Chesapeake Bay Water Shed — and all up and down the North American Atlantic coast.

  6. If I had to define my experiences of wonder I might say, being suddenly made aware of infinite possibilities. Or, being surprised by how utterly cool something is, whether real or imaginary, something I’d never thought of before, or never in that way. (And now you’ll want me to define cool, and I can’t!)

    Discovering Narnia (I was 8, I think.) Rediscovering Narnia at several different times later. Lewis’s words striking a chord.

    The idea in Contact, by Carl Sagan (I’m pretty sure that’s the book this was in; it’s been years) that God might be talking to us through the numbers in pi. Blew my mind right open.

    The first time I read Card’s Speaker for the Dead, and found out the mystery of the piggies. Not just the idea itself, but the fact that someone could have imagined that.

    Visits to ancient ruins like Hadrian’s Wall and sensing the vastness of history, wondering how to make a connection between myself and the builders.

    Climbing on a glacier and seeing even ancienter forces at work, unimaginably slowly but inexorably changing the face of the world, feeling so small and fragile.

    Several different musical experiences: watching virtuosic live performances, like Bobby McFerrin; the combination of sound and setting, like hearing an organ performance in an old cathedral; sometimes even in recorded music, the symbiosis of melody, harmony and lyric catches me off guard, fills me with awe and appreciation.

  7. Ann Crispin drove me down the Blue Ridge Parkway one autumn. OMFSM.

    (I miss her.)

    Most of the native trees in Washington State are evergreens. One October I drove Suzy McKee Charnas down Highway 101 and then along the Columbia to Portland. Maples and aspens were turning colors, and we passed a hill, heavily forested with evergreens, with a road winding up it. The aspens and maples grow along the edges of roads (more sunlight), and had turned RED! and YELLOW! and ORANGE! so the effect was of a ginormous decorated Christmas tree.