Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sense of Wonder

Science fiction and fantasy readers talk about a sense of wonder. There are definitions with impressive terms like "paradigm shift," but it's not really describable. It's something you feel. An expression of the awe and mystery in the universe, of how much more immense, timeless and strange it all is than we can imagine.
Edgar Rice Burroughs told stories about an imaginary Mars peopled by heroic civilizations, weird beasts and advanced science. Edmond Hamilton wrote from the 1920s to the 60s about an Interstellar Patrol of beings from many worlds, an inn at the end of time, and "the great booming suns of outer space." His wife, Leigh Brackett added, "and if they don't boom, by God, they ought to!" She herself wrote exotic tales of ancient Mars, Venus and Mercury. EE Smith told of colliding galaxies and beings of pure mind. JRR Tolkien and Robert E Howard created eras of magic and mystery that lived and died long before known history. HP Lovecraft wrote of the Great Old Ones who came from the stars and other dimensions eons before even the dinosaurs lived on Earth, and of the alien Great Race whose collection included "a mind from the planet Venus that would live incalclable epochs in the future and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past." Michael Moorcock's Corum series was set in the days when "there were oceans of light, cities in the skies and wild flying beasts of bronze."
STAR WARS is a grand space adventure, but has little to inspire the sense of wonder. There are scores of Dungeons and Dragons fantasy novels set in cookie-cutter copies of Tolkien's world with no real feeling of awe or strangeness. Sense of wonder is an elusive concept. Not to say that modern novels are completely lacking; writers are using new discoveries like quantum physics and chaos theory to express the universe's majesty.
Once in a while it occurs in real life. Did you know that radio astronomers recently picked up a source of noise from farther out than any of the known galaxies that measures six times louder than all the emissions from all the galaxies combined?
But some people don't need booming suns or bronze beasts to know a real sense of wonder. The little Punkin Seed in the picture stares at things we wouldn't give a second glance - light bulbs, curtains, CD shelves or the Winnie the Pooh characters that circle over his swing seat - like he was gazing upon the mysteries of the universe. I'm priveledged to babysit him, and it's when I see his wide bright eyes taking in the world that I know what a real sense of wonder is.