December 2007

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Where's the Sense in Sensawunda?

It’s excitement, I think. That sense of excitement, of wonder… It’s imagination, the feeling of mystery that you get when people tell you stories about distant lands, hidden asteroids, secret locations, secret lands where things are strange, and where we’re infiltrators, or strangers. There’s something so magic about the unknown.
Robert Holdstock, Where Time Winds Blow

When I wrote the first of these columns I argued that we are losing our sense of what science fiction is these days. It generated, much to my surprise, a fairly favourable response.

A couple of months later, I suggested that mainstream writers were starting to incorporate scientists into their fiction in a way they really hadn’t done before. I didn’t say they were doing a good job of this, only that they were domesticating science, making it an unremarkable part of the everyday concerns and interests of fiction. This earned a slightly less favourable response (Paul McAuley accused me of Brockmanism, which rather amused me, I’ve never been compared to a Simpsons character before). However, I note T.K. Kenyon made pretty much the same point from a different perspective in his article here at Bookslut in October.

But as far as I am concerned, my two columns were saying exactly the same thing. So perhaps it’s time to state my case more clearly: I’m not sure what the point of science fiction is these days.

And before that rattles too many cages, that does not mean I’ve lost my interest in science fiction. Good sf still excites me every bit as much as it did when I first started discovering the genre in the '60s. And it does not mean that I think there is no such thing as sf, or that it has lost out to the mainstream or to fantasy or anything else you might conjure up. I suppose it might mean that I am getting old and jaded, but that’s just a fact of life and I don’t choose to dwell on the prospect.

No, I’m talking about what makes science fiction distinctive. Back in my uncritical youth, when there wasn’t really much of what you might call a critical language for science fiction, we used to reckon that sf had one unique feature. Like horror, it was a way of defining a genre by its affect, but I’m pretty sure we never thought of it like that. We called it "sense of wonder," although we more often ran it all together: "sensawunda." It’s not a term you come across much any more. Academics and critics are uncomfortable defining a genre by affect because it can’t easily be quantified or enumerated. Even horror is starting to acquire a critical vocabulary that moves away from affect (see John Clute’s The Darkening Garden). But perhaps its time to reconsider sensawunda, not as any sort of defining characteristic but as a way of discovering what we, the readers, look for in a science fiction story.

You see, sf stories are filled with literary devices: the spaceship, the time machine, the galaxy-spanning civilization, the robot, the AI, the dystopia. But these are not what make the story sf; rather, they are the tools that allow the sf story to achieve its effect. And that effect is a sense of excitement, delight, dread, amusement at the possibilities offered within a vast, complex, rationally comprehensible universe. In other words, behind, beneath, around, alongside what we see every day is something other. Call it escapist if you will, though I tend to think that escape is just one of a great many satisfactions that sf can offer; one of the reasons I tend to feel uncomfortable with "wonder" as the catch-all term for these satisfactions is that it seems a very limiting view of what sf can achieve. Awe might be better, at least it suggests feeling small in the face of the terrible as much as it suggests feeling small in the face of the beautiful. But in many ways this is still too big a word. Many of the satisfactions, the amazements of science fiction are small scale: like the bolts of lightning Nikola Tesla harnesses for the sake of a stage magic trick in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s stick with "wonder." After all, the thrill you get from a good sf story is not that dissimilar to the thrill you get from a good magic trick. Wow, did you see that, was that real? What if it was real? Part of what sf does is make us look at something impossible, beyond our reach, beyond our ken -- and think of it as if it were real, as if we might at some point have to deal with it. It is the fact that this transaction always starts beyond our current experience that has led me to consider science fiction as part of the fantastic (I am far from alone in this, but there are others who look at the end point of that self-same transaction and argue, with just as much justification, that sf is therefore part of realism). But being part of the fantastic does not mean that it is fantasy.

As an aside -- and these columns seem to consist of more digression than argument -- let us stop for a moment and think about The Prestige and fantasy. If you read the novel carefully there is not a moment of fantasy in there, everything "magical" that happens is stage magic, the result of trickery, of technology, of invention. There is a rational explanation for everything, as last year’s film version made abundantly clear, we are shown the workings for every wonder that happens. It may not always be obvious in the book -- Priest, after all, is a master of sleight of hand -- but it is there. Yet the novel won a World Fantasy Award. We want to see fantasy, even if it’s not there, we want to be amazed. We want the wonder but not the sense.

And that’s the point I’m working towards. Sensawunda really needs both the awe and the comprehension, it needs both sides of the equation that links the fantastic and the real; but more and more we are looking for the wonder above the sense. That has always been a part of literature. Fantasy has its own rationalisations, its own rules and perspectives, but if the story in the end gives you that thrill of amazement it doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t make sense in terms of the world as we understand it. Indeed, it is often the point of fantasy that it should not conform to any expectations of our mundane reality. But science fiction isn’t like that.

Unfortunately, as we successively try to achieve that ever bigger hit of wonder, it’s all too easy to throw in a god or a demon or a mystery man was not meant to know. Or we go the other way, we want to avoid the contention that sf is crossing over into fantasy, so we try to make it purely realist. We invent things like Mundane SF which is full of sense but has very little wonder.

Science fiction is a spectrum, it stretches between fantasy and realism and needs to be anchored in both. But more and more we see at one end of the spectrum fantasy and sf merging seamlessly, while at the other end realism appropriates, quite legitimately, the tropes of sf. In other words that unique affect that once upon a time made us love science fiction is now equally the province of fantasy and of realism. I’m not complaining, I’ve always loved the margins of genre precisely because of the productive way that different modes can feed upon each other. But still, science fiction’s old unique selling point seems to have been lost, and I’m not altogether sure it has yet managed to find a new one.