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.
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!
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.)
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.
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?