Sunday, 1 November 2009

Voyages Extraordinaires and the Spirit of Wonder

On this second anniversary of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age we feel that it's worth once more reiterating the raison d'etre of our efforts and tackle its antithesis. Cynicism has numerous and varied forms by which is can creep up on us. In so doing, it deprives us of one of the most important, human and humane faculties with which we have been blessed: the spirit of wonder.

This past April, io9 commentator Charlie Jane Anders asked Is "Sense Of Wonder" Just A Code For Returning To Childhood?. A bit ruefully, Anders asks if the invocation of "wonder" is really just a call to regress to a childlike stage of innocence,
It's a cliche to say "The Golden Age of science fiction is 14." When you're young and wide-eyed, all the universe's brilliance seems overwhelmingly new and awesome. Stories of exploration and conquest of the universe are fresh and thrilling, and the space hero's exploits feel like a proxy for your own process of finding your place in the world. It's the most awesome thing in the world, and you can keep experiencing that kind of excitement over and over again throughout your life - I still watch the original Star Trek on DVD and get a little thrill of excitement (mixed with nostalgia) again.

But "sense of wonder," to me, is another way of talking about a child's awe at the amazing bounty of creation. And I can't help but wonder, when I hear people pining for "sense of wonder," if they're really just wishing for the return of childhood innocence. The phrase "sense of wonder," itself, evokes a sense of wide-eyed awe, a childlike amazement.

The problem with this, as Anders describes it, is that we can't - and more importantly shouldn't - remain children forever. The genuine problems of society are too grave to be dealt with by a band of Lost Boys living starry-eyed in a perpetual Neverland. Again,
But here's the thing: growing up is important. We can't hold onto our innocence forever. Not that you can't stop and admire the awesomeness of the universe, of course — that never really goes away... But I often think people who talk about "sense of wonder" are clamoring for more than just an appreciation of how cool space is, how amazing huge machines can be. They want that awareness of scale — the realization of how small we are and how big the universe is — to dominate, maybe even to drive the narrative. And in turn, that sense of bigness can obscure, or prevent, an awareness of how messy and complicated human beings are, and how likely we are to make a mess.

For some, this isn't just an issue over what kind of Sci-Fi books one prefers reading, but rather a problem with the whole genre. Around the same time as Anders published her io9 article, one user of The Steampunk Forum launched a seasonal complaint that Science Fiction was distracting from going out and living life. Worse yet, indulging this Science Fiction is leading people to play make-believe in a way that devalues the efforts and status of those for whom Steampunk is a daily lifestyle. Ultimately, Science Fiction... any fiction... infantilizes.

More recently yet,'s Steampunk Month made a pretty consistent effort of degrading mere "Neo-Victorians" whose primary interest in Scientific Romances is not to work out race, gender and class conflicts. It seems that some are simply not Punk enough for Steampunk, even sullying it for real, true Steampunks. This is all quite understandable given how dreary the genre has become. "Dirty mecha", even dirtier characters, and abysmal dystopian worlds where ideas like "beauty", "sublimity" and "wonder" exist only as vestiges of colonial privilege for which one should feel ashamed.

How easy it would be to descend into cynicism. I can feel it rattling the bulwarks even as I write this piece, and more than once over the past two years have I felt the urge to throw up my hands in the face of such cynicism. When it is not only your interest in the genre that is coming under criticism by the hipsterati, but the very genre itself, one almost has to ask what makes it worth it anymore. Why perilously throw oneself into a twice-weekly defense of stolid Neo-Victorianism and naive appreciation of wonder?

Perhaps - by inclination, disposition or simple pathology - we cannot help but? Perhaps it is the nature of wonder that it forces us to reject the cynical approach of being too good, being too cool, or being too grown up for a genuine sense of wonder. God forbid that Scientific Romances should be reduced to little more than fashion and a wistful idea of what state the world ought to be. The last thing they should become is a lifestyle or, even worse, a movement! Rather, they have far greater reach as a worldview, as an antidote for viewing the world as it actually is in all its beauty and majesty and wonder.

This brings us back around to the criticism of Anders, that Science Fiction - or Scientific Romances before them - in fact does not equip us to grapple with the messy realities of the world as it actually is. She quotes from Nancy Kress, who meditated on the fancy of fictional pirates versus the horrifying reality of machinegun-toting criminals off the coast of Somalia:
When I was a kid, sometime back in the Triassic, I read a story about the hi-jacking of a space ship by rebel freedom fighters. I can't remember the name of the story or the author... What I do remember was my fifteen-year-old sense of awe: Something that really huge could just be stolen?

Now that Somalian pirates have actually stolen a huge oil tanker, holding 25 people hostage and using organized crime as the transfer point for millions of dollars in ransom, my visceral response is not "awe." Outrage, disgust, fear are closer.

The application to any tale of rollicking airship pirates or swashbucklers of the Caribbean is obvious.

Against this I respond that hearty Scientific Romances remind us not to fall into the trap of thinking that the outrageous, disgusting and fearful are more real than the beautiful, majestic and wonderful. It is the old cynic's smirking and lazy belief that because there is evil, God and good must not exist; that because all men be liars, there must be no such thing as truth. Is there any question about why Steampunk worlds (and contraptions) have become so horribly ugly and utilitarian? This was one of the greatest weapons that C.S. Lewis' Screwtape felt the hordes of Hell could employ: convincing humanity that demons were real and angels were not.

Quite deliberately, I think, Scientific Romances seek out the beautiful, majestic and wonderful as an antidote against cynicism. Before being commandeered, air-pirate-like, by begoggled fetish girls and DIY contraptors calling themselves "Punk", Victorian Science Fiction was a unique intersection of the romance of nature and science embodied in history through the lens of 19th century aesthetics. They spoke of exploration and progress without abandoning memory and tradition. To work from Jules Verne's intention, these were works of discovery with the capacity of teaching us something directly or opening our minds with a sense of wonder receptive to learning.

Verne took us around the world in the astonishingly rapid pace of 80 days and he took us thousands of leagues beneath the ocean waves. Conan Doyle took us deep into the Amazonian jungle to make a study of prehistoric life. Georges Méliès and Karel Zeman alike romanced us with the moon and stars. From the Sakura Wars franchise, one could derive a whole course in studying Japanese history, geography, mythology, spirituality and pop-culture. One would have to, simply to understand it. James Gurney worked from the highest order of palaeontological information in creating the fantastical Dinotopia, and even brainless eye-candy like Wild Wild West put Will Smith and a giant metal tarantula against the backdrop of historical events.

Anyone criticizing such enjoyments as infantile, effete or classist simply does not know what they are for. Nor does it stop with our tastes in novels, films and comic books. These things all point to the endless wonders of Creation and compel our active involvement. The closest kin to The Lost World is not a story about a dystopian future with mind-controlled dinosoldiers, but the local zoo. The nearest ally to A Trip to the Moon is your own city's astronomical society. Indeed, head outdoors, travel, gaze at the stars, with your anthology of Verne stories in hand!

However, all that said, H.G. Wells still terrified us with the horror of Martian invasion. Walt Disney took a travelogue of the Seven Seas and turned it into a meditation on atomic power. Scientific Romances have never shied away from addressing important and topical issues, nor should they. It would be impossible to discuss "the romance of nature and science embodied in history through the lens of 19th century aesthetics" without being conscious of the forces of history, positive and negative.

In fact, Scientific Romances beget a quite peculiar mindset. In order to fully enjoy them, one must be completely aware of their biases. We must be able to recognize the colonial impetus of Prof. Challenger and Captain Nemo, in order that we can study, understand and, if necessary, compartmentalize them. Otherwise, the romance of these stories would be buried beneath layers of uncomfortable Western guilt. Nor can we ignore bias in modern variations. Some people have criticized Dinotopia's utopian civilization. One of the biggest faults of Steampunk fiction is the tendency to fetishize the roguish poverty of the underclass and liberal characters without a serious examination of their own ugly side. A proper novel of the type wouldn't simply side with the suffragettes, but point out how temperance and eugenics were part and parcel of their recipe for social improvement. One of the feathers in the cap of Wild Wild West was its refusal to whitewash post-war racism. When faced with the genuine literature of the era, those sorts of facts are inescapable.

Furthermore, where would the Nautilus be without the conflicted, tortured specimen of humanity at her helm? What would a trip to the Lost World be without a young man gaining wisdom and strength from the journey? It is only when we feel ourselves to be too good and too cool for the masses of humanity that we forget how wondrous and amazing and frightening and awful each individual person's life is. It is only by losing our spirit of wonder at each person being made in the image of God Herself that we can presume to look down on them as worthless sheep.

G.K. Chesterton articulated this supreme value of fiction, scientific or otherwise:
Romance seeks to divide certain people from the lump of humanity, as the statue is divided from the lump of marble. We read a good novel not in order to know more people, but in order to know fewer. Instead of the humming swarm of human beings, relatives, customers, servants, postmen, afternoon callers, tradesmen, strangers who tell us the time, strangers who remark on the weather, beggars, waiters, and telegraph-boys — instead of this bewildering human swarm which passes us every day, fiction asks us to follow one figure (say the postman) consistently through his ecstasies and agonies. That is what makes one so impatient with that type of pessimistic rebel who is always complaining of the narrowness of his life, and demanding a larger sphere. Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to. All true romance is an attempt to simplify it, to cut it down to plainer and more pictorial proportions. What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity: people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side. By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humourist, or a murderer, or a man who has seen a ghost.

I do not believe that there are any ordinary people. That is, I do not believe that there are any people whose lives are really humdrum or whose characters are really colourless. But the trouble is that one can so quickly see them all in a lump, like a land surveyor, and it would take so long to see them one by one as they really are, like a great novelist. Looking out of the window, I see a very steep little street, with a row of prim little houses breaking their necks downhill in a most decorous single file. If I were landlord of that street, or agent for that street, or policeman at the corner of that street, or visiting philanthropist making myself objectionable down that street, I could easily take it all in at a glance, sum it all up, and say, “Houses at £40 a year.” But suppose I could be father confessor to that street, how awful and altered it would look! Each house would be sundered from its neighbour as by an earthquake, and would stand alone in a wilderness of the soul. I should know that in this house a man was going mad with drink, that in that a man had kept single for a woman, that in the next a woman was on the edge of abysses, that in the next a woman was living an unknown life which might in more devout ages have been gilded in hagiographies and made a fountain of miracles. People talk much of the quarrel between science and religion; but the deepest difference is that the individual is so much bigger than the average, that the inside of life is much larger than the outside.

There is wonder in each life and each tree, crying out from the mountaintops and the ocean depths and the billions of nebulae in the celestial spheres. The whole cosmos is full of more wonders than we can comprehend, an infinite pantheon spanning from the smallest child to the largest galaxy. Cynicism is the chronic condition of mistaking our own narrowness for a narrowness on the part of the cosmos, as though we were too great to be contained by it. One of the great gifts of Scientific Romances is to reopen our minds with the immensity of these wonders. It is to reclaim the gift of an amazing life in an amazing world.


The Raven said...

You know, you're insulting rather a lot of people who think well of you. &, perhaps, who turn to Victorian images for the same reasons the Victorians did. It was a very hard time in history, despite its great achievements.

Cory Gross said...

I guess it begs the question of how I am insulting people who were themselves insulting to begin with.

I'm sure that folks are turning to 19th century images, settings, and so on for many reasons that all seem good to them. What I was objecting to through my post was the idea that some of those reasons were "wrong" or "shallow" because they weren't in the service of a particular socio-political doctrine. If that's what one dervies from it, great! But it isn't necessary to accuse other people of being your inferiors because they're interested in it for different reasons (or not interested in it at all).

The rest was a defense of my own particular reasons, being the wonder, beauty and romance of nature, science, history and 19th century aesthetics... As well as what may be the greatest romance of them all, which is the wonder of the human being who experiences that romance.

Russell said...


Stellar essay!

Being child-like with wonder doesn't mean being childish and immature.