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Why isn’t there sensawunda in ALL speculative fiction? February 18, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Sensawunda 101.
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I can only speculate (no pun intended). Some possibilities come to mind:

  • The author doesn’t understand how to create sensawunda. Perhaps they try to put it in and simply fail. Or they may think having spaceships or dragons will do it, not understanding that the trappings of genre are only a gateway. (For all I know, however, there may be a lot of readers for whom that is truly enough. More power to ’em. They’ll keep reading our stories even when we try for sensawunda and fall short.)
  • The author didn’t think to try to put it in.
  • The author feels that sensawunda is childish, that they are too sophisticated for it; they’re writing about serious issues, thank you very much.
  • Corollary: maybe they’re not trying to be literary; just trying to write realistically, even though they’re employing speculative fiction for whatever reason.
  • The story line honestly doesn’t lend itself to sensawunda. I’m thinking of military SF, for instance (not that there couldn’t be exceptions).
  • I know for a fact I’ve written stories without understanding how to get sensawunda into them. There are so many balls to keep in the air when writing, and a beginner has to learn how to write a coherent story first, with an actual plot and some real live characters. If spec fic is what you’re shooting for, you also have to learn to employ speculative elements that are more than just window dressing, that are actually necessary to the story. It takes a conscious choice, perhaps, to inject sensawunda, and a deft touch to pull it off.

    But I disagree with the notion that sensawunda is only for children or “light” entertainment. OK… Sense of Wonder. (I do admit that spelling it the fannish way looks a little childish!) My previous blog entry was about the sense of wonder in a serious literary novel, The Secret Life of Bees. Salman Rushdie also pops to mind, with The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

    I’m reminded of a quote from Star Trek Lives! by Lichtenberg, Marshak and Winston (1975):

    “Life is not like that.”

    If you listen very carefully, you can still hear “the voice of your Aunt Rosalie,” saying: “Life is not like that.”

    The image belongs to one famous writer, but somehow the Aunt Rosalies of this world belong to us all. They are people who, when we first respond to some heroic vision of the world suitable for a young mind, say with crushing superiority: “Wait until you grow up. You’ll see. That’s all foolishness; people are not like that; life is not like that.”

    Most of us don’t know, at that age, that the question we ought to ask is: “Should life be like that?”

    They speak of the “young mind,” but what they’re saying is that some try to crush this longing for sense of wonder by asserting that it’s unrealistic and unadult… and many have bought into this, because it seemed like the way to be accepted, and look down their noses at those of us who “can’t handle reality.”

    I say what’s unrealistic is to scuttle about like an ant gathering food and stuffing it into your den and to write “realistic” stories about that kind of scuttly little existence as if it’s all there is to reality. Those who refuse to lift up their eyes to the transcendent splendor of life, the universe, and everything are the ones I say “can’t handle reality.”

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