We are drawn to science fiction and fantasy because of what Damon Knight called its “sense of wonder”. This is a hard term to define exactly, but you know and I know exactly what it is when we come across a scene or image or turn of phrase in a science fiction story that causes our imagination to make a sudden leap away from our normal cognitive boundaries and into a new realm. Some have called this a paradigm shift. Carlos Castaneda’s teacher called it a shift in the “assembledge point” in an individual where one’s normal sense of reality is momentarily knocked askew. Castaneda’s teacher, Don Juan Matus, felt this way about the poetry of Pablo Neruda. We feel this way about science fiction.
Periodically I’m going to talk about those moments of wonder I’ve experienced in reading various works of science fiction, hoping that you’ll share yours with me. They won’t be the same. In fact, they might be embarrassing. For example, when I was in high school reading science fiction, an acquaintance of mine was also reading science fiction. He wasn’t a friend, exactly. He was one of those characters like Millhouse Van Houten on The Simpsons.
I remember one day my freshman year (1964) reading a copy of A.E. Van Vogt’s The Beast which I received from the Science Fiction Book Club. Doug Alexander came up to me and said, “Is that Beast Master by Andre Norton?”
I winced. At the time I thought Andre Norton was an embarrassment, if only because her books had the cheeziest covers imaginable. (Now I read every Baen Book reissue of Andre Norton’s books that come out.) The point is that Doug Alexander was reading on his own, in his own world, happy with Andre Norton’s cheezy juveniles. I was rather huffily proud to be reading a “much better” science fiction writer than Andre Norton. It’s all relative, is the point. What turns you on probably won’t turn me on and vice versa.
Nonetheless, we all are sometimes blown away by a scene in a science fiction story on novel and I want to share my moments with you. (And by all means, share yours with me.)
Here’s a good one and it sort of snuck up on me. One summer in college (1971), I had been reading a serialized version of The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip José Farmer in several old issues of Galaxy when the seeds of wonder were planted. I didn’t know anything about Farmer, but back then I didn’t know anything about any particular writer: all I knew was that I liked science fiction and read it voraciously. Yes, I liked the idea of the Riverworld and was particularly taken by the Grailstones and the cliff walls of the Riverworld itself and how much of a prison it was.
As the Seventies kicked in, I kept reading whatever I could. But the Riverworld–the magnificent idea of it–must have been marinating in the back of my mind, because I can remember a physical shock upon seeing The Dark Design came out in 1977 at a B. Dalton’s Bookstore in Phoenix. I had almost forgotten about Farmer’s prodigy, not even really thinking it was a series, and hastily bought it. (It was one of the first hardbound books I ever bought. I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out. You know the drill.)
I eagerly went home and started reading it and all the wonders of the Riverworld came back to my mind, including that one summer reading Galaxy magazine in Flagstaff, Arizona. What really blew me away in The Dark Design–and is one of those “sense of wonder” moments for me–was when several of the main characters in the novel build a primitive airship and lift themselves up out of the canyon of the River. There, floating above the actual walls of the Riverworld they see the actual geological terrain of the planet and its winding and twisting canyons.
Off in the distance they see another balloon!
Someone else–and Farmer never explains who–had also found the primitive technology to build a lighter-than-air craft.
That just blew me away. It was here that Farmer’s imagination soared and it also happened to connect with mine. It was then that I fully came to appreciate the size of the planet upon which the Riverworld was built as well as an understanding of human nature. Farmer’s genius is that, through Richard Francis Burton, Peter Frigate, and Samuel Clemens, he’s able to show what human beings would do if actually confronted with being resurrected in a place so fantastic as the Riverworld.
But that airship in the distance! Just floating along, inhabited by humans of some other era with their own agenda, their own urgencies, and their own desire to get beyond their prison.
The Riverworld series is Farmer’s crowning achievement and I think it’s because of moments such as these that leap out of the very words on the page and blast away at the minds of readers like you and me. This scene may not have impressed you, but it did me. I will be blogging about other moments that tripped off my “sense of wonder”. This was the first.