Science Fiction and a Sense of Wonder

Science Fiction writers and readers often speak of stories that contain a Sense of Wonder.  What is a sense of wonder?

The years of the Industrial and Scientific Revolution ushered in a new view of the universe remarkably different from the universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy. The Earth was no longer the center.

In a dizzying swoop, Copernicus swept it to the side and placed the sun at the center. Then, with a jar, Kepler announced that the orbit was not an epicycle riding a circle, but an oval. Next, the division between the mundane world of change and decay and the superlunary world of everlasting and divine aether was shattered by Newton like the ceiling of a cathedral collapsing. The Blessed Father Nicolas Steno ushered in the era of modern geology, and the age of the world suddenly stretched backward to remote eons like the famous scene in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO where the grounds seems to swoop away from the dangling feet of Jimmy Stewart.

The first thing to notice about this, is that all these men were Churchmen, some in Catholic clergy or orders. So much for the war between Faith and Science.

The second thing is that the Church has always been opposed to witchcraft, astrology, and superstition, and during the Industrial Revolution she achieved a signal victory, replacing the old world haunted by pagan gods and dark occult forces with a world of clarity, light, and reason.

The modern world also accepted additional notions which at first   claimed to be scientific, but, upon reexamination, seem less so. Freud revised the view of man as being a helpless puppet of his hidden and irrational impulses rather than a being created with the divine faculty of reason; Marx revised the view of man as being a helpless puppet of historical economic forces rather than being the steward of the earth given by heaven into Man’s dominion; and nearly everyone misinterpreted Einstein to mean that if measurements of time and space were relative, moral truth was relative; and everyone misinterpreted Darwin to be saying the same thing Hegel said in an earlier generation, that all truths change and evolve with time, and that reason is therefore a product only of its time, and no truths are eternal. When men speak of a war between Faith and Science they can do so only by labeling these various irrational paradoxes to be “science” and by label the clear and rational thing discussed by Aquinas and Aristotle to be “faith.”

Be that as it may. No matter what one’s opinion on those topics might be, the fact remains that Freud and Marx and Hegel and modern relativism toppled Man from his position as a central paramount of creation in much the same way Copernicus and Kepler forced the earth from its bottom-most position at the centerpoint of all falling bodies and sent the Earth blazing through the wide heavens as a wandering star like Jupiter and Venus and the other benign planets.   The change of viewpoint was dizzying as a carnival ride.   This new view of the world gave rise to a new form of literature, as   the artistic soul of man attempted to imbibe what his reason was telling him.   The new literature took three forms: first, a secular literature set   in the present, which concentrated only on earthly matters, leaving all supernatural wonders aside. MOBY DICK is the prime example of this in English literature, or PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. This form basically ignores both the wonders of the supernatural and the wonders of nature.

Second, a nostalgic literature set in the imagined past of the previous worldview. LORD OF THE RINGS by Tolkien or any number of Conan stories by Robert E Howard are the most famous representative samples of this. This is an imaginative attempt to re-enter a pre-Industrial or pre-Christian worldview, and recapture the wonders of the childhood of man.

Third, stories taking place in the imagined future is the industrial   and scientific revolutions continue to produce new wonders: Jules Verne and H.G.   Wells are the primary wellsprings of the two basic flavors of this   literature, which is called Science Fiction. The basic flavors are technical speculation, or Hard SF, as in Verne, and social commentary or Soft SF, as in Wells.

The sense of awe that one feels when one realizes that the world is   not at the center, and that the stars are not upward from us, as if we are looking at the widows of a cathedral as tall as heaven, but outward, as if we are looking from the bow of a ship sailing softly through a sea of stars; the sensation of numinous fear and wonder one feels to learn that the stars are unimaginably distant, and most are monstrously larger than our own small sun; or to learn that we are gazing backward through remote immensities of time, so that the stars we see are images of stars that existed years, decades, centuries, or millennia in the past, some of which may long ago have died; or to realize that every atom in our bodies was forged in the heart of some long-ago long-dead star that moment of nova light, and exploded; that awe is the stock-in-trade of the science fiction story.

The sense of wonder of science fiction differs from other natural   wonders or personal miracles in a man’s life, the wonders of first love or childbirth and so on. Science Fiction concerns only those specific wonders that are not eternal and not know to all men, the specific mysteries of the universe revealed by the scientific revolution and the Christian victory over superstition.

And that is what a sense of wonder is.