When Sense of Wonder Wanes

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 22, 2018

The essential goal of science fiction is to inspire a sense of wonder. Science fiction is most powerful to young readers. Many hardcore science fiction addicts spend the rest of their lives strung out trying to recapture that sense of wonder they found in youth. Sadly, sense of wonder fades in two ways. We become jaded as we age, and science fiction becomes dated.

Amazing-Stories-1928-Nov-small

The dynamics of this loss of wonder came to me as I listened to the new audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, edited by Robert Silverberg that was first published in 1970. I enjoyed listening to these old science fiction stories tremendously, but that joy was fueled by nostalgia for my lost sense of wonder. I’ve been recommending this audiobook widely because I want science fiction anthologies to succeed in the audiobook marketplace. However, I got an email from my friend Mike that makes me want to write a warning to go along with my recommendation.

Mike was enjoying the stories until he got to “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein, a story that first appeared in 1940. I told Mike this was the weakest story in the book for me. I’ve read it many times, and have heard two audio versions. All the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame were voted into the collection by the newly formed Science Fiction Writers of America after 1965. Each included author could only have one story. I never could understand why they picked “The Roads Must Roll” for Heinlein. I would have picked “The Menace from Earth.” But evidently, this story still had a sense of wonder to the SFWA members when they voted for it. But I first read “The Roads Must Roll” just before they voted when I was a young teen, and the idea of rolling roads seemed stupid to me even then. They were older and voting their nostalgia.

Then Mike sent me this email about “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon from 1941:

I think “Microcosmic God” is a terrible story. It makes the plot of “The Roads Must Roll” seem intelligent and elegant.

The two main characters are dreadful. Kidder is a cold-blooded killer who happily massacres the Neoterics whenever they have not followed orders to his satisfaction. Conant is a silly Saturday afternoon matinee villain who wants to take over the world. Oh, brother! Conant reminds me of Snidely Whiplash. How do you take a story seriously with flat characters like Kidder and Conant?

The Neoterics are a clumsy deus ex machina. You might as well give Kidder a magic wand and a book of spells. This is one of the most preposterous plot devices ever devised. It takes stupid to a new level.

There is no character development. The plot is stale nonsense, complete with bad guys spinning their revolvers on their trigger fingers. I’ve seen better plots in Charlie Chan movies.

I don’t know how or why this is considered a good story by the science fiction community. It’s awful.

Mike is completely right in his criticism, but I still enjoyed the story because I could imagine the sense of wonder it created in 1941. Even though it depicts cruel events, they are widely imaginative. I even gave it an A when I sent Mike my grading of the stories:

  • A+ “A Martian Odyssey”
  • A- “Twilight”
  • B- “Helen O’Loy”
  • C “The Roads Must Roll”
  • A “Microscopic God”
  • A- “Nightfall”
  • C “The Weapon Shop”
  • A+ “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”
  • A++ “Huddling Place”
  • A- “Arena”
  • A “First Contact”
  • B- “That Only a Mother”
  • A “Scanners Live in Vain”
  • A+ “Mars is Heaven”
  • A “The Little Black Bag”
  • B “Born of Man and Woman”
  • B+ “Coming Attractions”
  • A “The Quest for Saint Aquin”
  • A+ “Surface Tension”
  • B+ “Nine Billion Names of God”
  • B “It’s a Good Life”
  • A+ “The Cold Equations”
  • A “Fondly Fahrenheit”
  • B+ “The Country of the Kind”
  • A+++ “Flowers for Algernon”
  • A+++ “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”

Jupiter-red-spot

I’ve wondered for decades if 21st-century young people reading 20th-century science fiction stories would find a sense of wonder in them. The golden age of science fiction is supposed to be twelve, but would a 12-year-old today still find a sense of wonder in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame? Has its sense of wonder faded?

I know my own sense of wonder is in decline, but then so is my heart and mind. As we get old we wear out. My sense of wonder isn’t what it used to be. For example, I just read Ocean of Storms (2016) by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K. Brown. If I had been twelve when I read it, I believe my sense of wonder would have been wowed. It essentially recycles 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973) with the movie Apollo 13 (1995) and adds modern thriller clichés, evil conspirators, contemporary politics, genetic manipulations, and a bunch of hard to believe details. If I hadn’t already encountered all those classic science fiction ideas I would have loved this book. Because I was jaded by a lifetime of science fiction thrills, this book was only ho-hum. It offered me nothing new.

Ocean of Storms was our modern selection for my science fiction book club this month, the classic selection was A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864). The Verne book was more fun to read, but it offered no sense of wonder either. Its science is completely dated. However, it was fun trying to imagine how 19th-century readers had their sense of wonder blown away. Was science fiction in the 1800s more mind-blowing to its readers because they knew far less than we do today?

As an older science fiction fan, it’s extremely rare for me to encounter a new science fictional idea. In fact, I can’t come up with a recent example. Maybe Spin (2005) by Robert Charles Wilson or Quarantine (1992) by Greg Egan. Most of my enjoyment of science fiction comes from understanding the history of science fiction and working to comprehend the classic stories in the context of their times. I admire current novels like Aurora (2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson for using science fiction to speculate about the limits of space travel, but I generally don’t find much sense of wonder anymore.

Science fiction has become adventure stories set into older science fiction speculative ideas. It’s retreads of retreads. Modern science fiction is often far better written than older science fiction, and modern science fiction writers have superior storytelling skills. But the sense of wonder I found in my teens is gone.

Don’t feel too sad for me. I now find a sense of wonder in studying science fiction. Science fiction used to provide me a sense of wonder about the future, now it provides a sense of wonder about the past. There are two types of science fiction. The common form is entertainment, but the form I like are those stories that explore the event horizon between what science knows and what science might discover. I believe the stories included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame were selected because at one time they all speculated on possibilities existing on that event horizon. Just because science has advanced, destroying most of that speculation doesn’t mean their feats of imagination are diminished.

JWH

19 thoughts on “When Sense of Wonder Wanes”

  1. Great post, Jim. I too loved the old science fiction – or quite a lot of it anyway. But the world in the 1970s was different – the world was excited about science. Sending a man into space and then to the moon was exciting and made the front pages all over the world. Transplants and robots were new. The Jetsons were fun and who knew what would come next?

    That kind of science-for-the-common man and technological progress ended in the 1970s – it had been a magic century between 1870 and 1970 (roughly) – See “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War” by Robert J. Gordon. – it’s fat and fact-filled, numbers and stats, but it’s good. I haven’t finished yet – got about 1/2 way. I don’t think teens respond to sci-fi the way we did because they’re not living in the same world.

    Anyway, the sci-fi I like these days is not about wonder – it’s about disenchantment with science and technology – it’s about dystopian futures due to environmental crisis or new wars or plagues which seem very real – not cautionary tales about the *imagined* or possible or theoretical downside of ongoing scientific advances. The dystopian futures I read about seem very real to me. Also, techie books were great for awhile – William Gibson and Ready Player One. (I was NOT big on The Martian and Dark Matter was kind of stupid.) I enjoyed Station Eleven and

    I think we can’t really understand the science and technology involved anymore. It’s not fiction – and to be correct it has to be

    There’s a book called “The Three Body Problem” (a trilogy by Cixin Liu – translated from the Chinese) which is much like old-fashioned sci-fi in that it’s very, very much real-science oriented. But it’s imbued with today’s atmosphere and attitudes – pessimist. There’s none of the wonder you talk about in it – it’s more like “Well, no wonder!” (considering human nature).

    1. finishing my sentence from above: “I think we can’t really understand the science and technology involved anymore. It’s not fiction – and to be correct it has to be” really complex.

    2. I agree, Becky. You saw my revelation before me. Looking at the problem in a larger context, the changes in society from 1870-1970 explain science fiction better than studying just science fiction. I need to reevaluate science fiction history in terms of larger history. I’ve been meaning to do that. Isaac Asimov did that some in his anthology series of science fiction covering 1939-1963. He introduced each year’s story with what was happening in the real world.

      By the way, I did read The Three-Body Problem year before last. I would have listed it if I had remembered it. It’s an excellent example of modern science fiction doing what I’m talking about.

      I’ve been meaning to get The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I wished we’d pick it for your book club.

  2. Well, James, I’d suggest that the sense of wonder you’re talking about is really imaginative play. At the age of 12 we’d been playing make-believe our whole lives; making up stories for ourselves or with our friends to be acted out with our toys and improvised props. Many of these play stories were based on the movies and TV shows we watched. Once we start to read, the books become our playmates and our prompts for our imaginary play worlds. They don’t need to be very elaborate because by 12 we’re old hands at make-believe. Eventually we forget how to play, (or haven’t the time) and growing less naive, we began to see how much of real life we never knew was missing from those stories, and their appeal fades.

    I don’t think you have to worry about today’s kids, judging from my grandkids. Kids still play. My 10 yr old granddaughter and 7 yr old grandson are both into Star Wars, and imaginative play. My granddaughter is now into reading books on “warrior cats” on her own. My own kids wouldn’t watch old black and white movies, and I don’t think today’s kids are going to read old stories – they have their own sources of inspiration, as well they should.

    I can’t bring myself to read all those (rather bad) old SF books from the 60’s & 70’s again, though I still have them in my library. That said, I don’t read much modern SF these days either. Sadly, my tastes in what I look for in writing are too narrow. Instead, I’ve gone back to imaginative play. I daydream stories – a few minutes here, a minute there, since my attention span is very limited. Every scene is replayed dozens of times to get it right, and sometimes just to enjoy it again and again. I might even try to capture these daydreams and herd them into words to make them into a real story. And like you say, they are indeed echoes of the story-worlds I lived in my distant youth. I guess that’s my nostalgia.

    1. I agree Chuck that modern kids have a tremendous range of imaginative play. I think modern kids have far more opportunities than we did, and they live in a much more complex and sophisticated world.

      That said, I don’t think imaginative play is the same thing a sense of wonder when used in relation to science fiction. And like Jim said elsewhere in the comments, it might not exist today anyway. To me reading science fiction before the cultural upheaval of 1967-1969 was a way of thinking out of a rather rigid cultural box. Most people weren’t thinking about space travel, the future, computers, artificial intelligence, robots, aliens, etc. Now such ideas on integrated into children’s stories.

      Today’s kids grow up in a far larger cultural box. I think it already contains everything that blew our minds when we were young. In fact, our society has exploded in creative ways science fiction never imagined.

      So my lament over science fictional sense of wonder might be narrow-minded on my part. Modern kids might see us old farts and our big ideas as quaint.

  3. Agreed on all counts. My own sense of wonder is shot to ribbons, and the spare parts are no longer available.

    This is why I’m reluctant to read any science fiction novel nowadays. Absent a sense of wonder, there has to be suspense (why is SF so seldom genuinely suspenseful?) or really good characters or writing in the literary sense. I found satisfactory helpings of some of these ingredients in STATION ELEVEN, but not since.

    Nevertheless, I haven’t given up on short fiction. As Jim says, I am sustained by the historical interest to an enormous extent. I am determined to read all the short SF classics I can find and keep records of my reading. Novels? Life’s too short. The last novel I read was a straight up suspense number by Dean Koontz, and the one I’d like to read next is DAVID COPPERFIELD.

    When Robert Silverberg sent out the voting instructions for the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, he urged SFWA members to keep historical perspective in mind. I would suggest that readers do the same. I still enjoy reading pre-1965 SF, but my reading brain slips into a different gear when I do so.

    With regard to THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME, I have also never liked “The Roads Must Roll”. In my case, it’s those road engineers in their cadet uniforms that got to me. Jim’s alternative choice is good, and perhaps the best one, but I would’ve been happy with any of “The Green Hills of Earth”, “It’s Great To Be Back!”, or my favorite, “They” (yes, it can certainly be read as science fiction, even though it’s always regarded as fantasy).

    I think Mike is being unduly harsh about “Microcosmic God”. It’s hardly a character piece, after all. Nevertheless, Sturgeon should have been represented by “The Man Who Lost the Sea”.

    By the way, Jim, there is a site called Young People Read Old SFF. If by some fluke you don’t know it, it’s here: http://youngpeoplereadoldsff.com/

    1. I admired STATION ELEVEN too. What’s interesting Piet is to read modern post-apocalyptic books written by women. They generally don’t go the Mad Max route.

      I did not know about the young people reading old science fiction site. Cool! The net is so vast.

      Heinlein had a lot of neat short stories, but they are overshadowed by his juveniles and preachy novels. I dislike his later novels, but I often find young people who only know his later novels, and some even claim they are their favorite novels. That blows my mind.

      I’m really looking forward to audiobook editions of THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME VOLUMES 2A and 2B coming out in February and April. Some of the classic novellas and novelettes of the genre are in them. Whoo-hoo!

    2. Piet, I went and read some of the reviews at Young People Read Old SFF. They were brutal. Shows how pop culture doesn’t easily cross generational lines. Many of the stories they read are the classics we’re talking about here.

      I don’t think our SF classics will be classics to later generations.

      I wonder what stories these kids will love nostalgically sixty years from now? And will a newer generation skewer them too?

  4. Ah, you guys are killing me! Or rather, what you are all saying is just hitting too close to home. I’m not sure that the “sense of wonder” that floated the boat of skiffy in the ’50s – ’70s is still alive. And worse, I don’t know if that is due to writers or readers. I suspect it is both, and some of that has to do with (publishing) business models and the official US government “treatment”, aka decisions that turned adventure into safe and cheap (well, more or less considering the commercialization of ) space exploration. And that of course, led to giant budgets, Congressional hearings, and what was nearly the end of our looking outward to new worlds.

    Without new ideas, new vistas, and the concept of new (based on our own of course) civilizations in a Solar System or Galaxy, what else is there to wonder about? Anderson, Laumer and others worked story lines into a future civilization that spanned solar systems, perhaps even galaxies. But they were still recognizable as extensions of the world we know. I suspect that what we liked about them was that there was a link to our present that fed into that future. There is good fiction that still does that, but it strongly points to a negative outcome, regardless of the efforts of the heroes to prevent it.

    We as a culture have lost the sense of wonder and of adventure that led us to believe that the ideas behind good science fiction offered a future that we could yearn for, and look forward to. Hell, even Star Trek did that, most of the time. And it couldn’t last more than 4 years without being canceled. The resurrection of that trope that has lasted so long is just another indication that past-seeking ideas are far more prevalent than forward-seeking ideas.

    Then again, that’s just my particular 65 yr old attitude/belief system. And I haven’t even begun to speak about conflict fiction (heh, my own term) wherein we are fighting the same battles in future worlds/systems/galaxies that seem so familiar to our current global issues…and without much Hope.

    Although some of that stuff is pretty good writing…

    1. You bring up some interesting points, Jim. I assume today’s kids psychological react pretty much like the Baby Boomers when they first discover classic science fiction ideas. You know, space travel, robots, aliens, time travel, AI minds, colonizing the solar system, interstellar travel, etc. But it might be different for them. They might encounter all these ideas much earlier because of TV. In fact, society is so permeated with science fictional ideas that they might not even feel a sense of wonder with them. Today’s culture might be too far out in too many ways to allow science fiction concepts to be thrilling.

      We grew up with the final frontier. But I’m not sure if kids today think that way. Maybe some. To be honest, I’m rather clueless about kids since me and my wife never had any. What big hopes do they have for the human race?

      Elaborate on your conflict fiction observation. It might be something I’ve been noticing too. When I looked at a list of science fiction books coming out in 2018 many of them, maybe even most dealt with space war, war with aliens, war with humans versus humans fighting over the solar system, war with apolcalyptic governments, etc.

      1. Hey JW – in response to your nudge re “conflict fiction” as a new subset of science fiction: it’s an idea that burst forth in reading the latest links regarding new science fiction and the latter generation’s interest (or lack thereof) in skiffy in general.

        I guess it goes back to the idea of adventure, but in a new venue/world/dimension that unbinds our minds from the staid and perhaps sterile downloading of news. Not that other crap pretending to be news, but the occasional information that (aside from politics today) filters in regarding anthropology, archaeology, climatology, etc. Doesn’t mean that today’s conflicts aren’t part of that, just that they are too close to home.
        Therefore, when today’s conundrums are too much to consider (safely), it’s best to port them into the future and make fiction out of them.

        By the way, I suspect that is not such a new concept…

        Anyway, you asked for an elaboration; I will do so lightly only because the ability to surf through massive references would require cataloging and research that I could never do – even through my own library. Without a skip-loader, and a staff of 5 anyway.

        My chief (and only so far) example: Tanya Huff’s Peacekeeper stories have a combination of adventure/war structure and flavor, but depend on a tight knit group of professional soldiers who have reached a level of trust and dependency that matches what my father lived through in Okinawa in 1945. And that is well reflected in some of the fiction following that war, and much better in the true stories and biographies of that time. OF course, the fiction leads with the adventure, follows with the tight-knit group dynamic and then fluffs it all with alien partners, enemies, and enigmas. And some decent plotting as well. And of course, courage and heroics.

        This conceptual reality is not new. It is however still selling books, so there must be something to it. Escapism? Perhaps. Cognizant transference of helplessness into a dream where the good guys always win?

        Why not? It reminds me of my early days of reading Science Fiction.

  5. Your recent posts on classic SF and Sense of Wonder have fueled a buying spree on my part (when the VISA bill comes in, I’m blaming you). I bought some T.E. Dikty collections that were priced right. I found ROBERT SILVERBERG PRESENTS THE GREAT SF STORIES (1964) online and had to have it. And I unearthed my copy of HUGO AND NEBULA AWARD WINNERS FROM ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION Edited by Sheila Williams. I have enough classic SF to keep me reading for months!

    Sense of Wonder varies for me. I can almost always be transported when I’m reading Jack Vance. With other SF writers from the 1950s and 1960s it’s more hit or miss.

    1. I was just reading “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance. I need to read more of his stuff. But I need it on audiobook.

      Which Dikty collections did you get? I’m jealous. Did you go for fine editions in dust jackets?

      I didn’t know about ROBERT SILVERBERG PRESENTS THE GREAT SF STORIES (1964). I see it’s #26 in that old series of Asimov/Greenberg. Wished he had continued it till 1975 or 1985. Now I want this one too. But I’ve already bought 5 anthologies this month.

      How your new acquisitions are worth the pain of your future VISA bill.

  6. When did science fiction begin? What are it’s true roots? Perhaps they are as old as storytelling or literature itself.Modern science fiction as a genre began in the twentieth century,but it was the result of hundreds of years of development.The old pulp magazines copied what had gone before and turned it into something formulistic,but surely that isn’t neccessarily what you mean when you say SF gives us a sense of wonder.

    Perhaps it needs to be viewed from a traditional and historical standpoint,before we can evaluate exactly what SF means as having that sense of wonder.

    1. Richard, the more I read about the history of science fiction, the older its origins get. I even wrote an essay, “The Genesis of Science Fiction” that suggested The Book of Genesis had science fictional elements. Think about it, isn’t Noah’s ark a kind of generation ship? Isn’t that story one of surviving an apocalypse? It’s about the end of the world and the last men. Doesn’t God and angels sound like aliens from other worlds? Doesn’t the Tower of Babel sound like something J. G. Ballard could have written?

      Today, I’ve been wondering just how long kids have been reading about Mars and wishing they could go there. We know A Princess of Mars got lots of kids thinking about it. But, but what about earlier stories? We know the ancient Greeks theorized about other worlds, and assume they might be peopled. When did humans realize that Mars was a planet like Earth? I suppose after the invention of the telescope.

      Before Burroughs was Roy Rockwood Great Marvel series, with Through Space To Mars which came out in 1910.

      I know there were many books about traveling to Mars in the 19th-century, but what about earlier.

      1. It certainly is a form of literature that has long-standing traditional roots.Ballard could well have written such a piece,but Jorge Luis Borges wrote one called “The Library of Babel”.

  7. I found copies of Bleiler & Dikty’s BEST SCIENCE FICTION STORIES: 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1952. I went with the cheapest price just to get reading copies. It kills me that I used to see these books in used bookstores for a pittance. And, to my chagrin, I passed on them. I have the complete Asimov DAW series so I figured I didn’t need these anthologies. But, after reading your comments on these books, I decided I really needed them…pronto!

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