That Sense of Wonder


One of the things that the best science fiction does is to evoke a sense of wonder in its readers. The best science fiction should open our eyes to possibilities and make us think about our place in the universe, in space or in time.

In Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction the term sense of wonder is defined as follows:

SENSE OF WONDER n. a feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible or by confrontation with the vastness of space and time, as brought on by reading science fiction

Science fiction tales use only words to evoke this feeling. But what about images? How do images evoke a sense of wonder in the viewer and can a single image do a comparable job as a book or even a short science fiction story?

I think some images do just that and some do it in a very big way.


Let’s start with a couple of paintings by Donato Giancola. Giancola is an American science fiction illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Here is his painting The Wire Continuum which was done for Playboy Enterprises to illustrate Arthur C Clarke’s short story. It’s an oil painting depicting an old man in a spaceship. He reclines in some sort of high tech chair and he is gazing out a huge curved window or viewscreen. He is contemplating what looks like a pulsar. The amazing machinery surrounding the old man is depicted in great detail. The viewer could get lost in all the mechanics and wiring that Giancola depicts.

Just as detailed is the wrinkles on the old man’s face as he contemplates the infinite. Take a step back, though and look at the whole thing and that sense of wonder about the galaxy and man’s place in it, and the lengths that we will go, the amazing things we will create to touch that infinity, takes one’s breath away.

Traveler by Donato Giancola

Here,s another one. This one is called Traveler. It’s another oil painting. This time it’s a young woman sitting before a window that shows a spiral galaxy. The surrounding technology is not hard-edged like in the other one. The forms are curved, almost Victorian. There is an art nouveau elegance about the room in which the figure sits. It could all be made out of polished wood for all we know. But there it is, the splendour of infinite space and the wonder as we look at this woman sitting calmly, serenely, against this incredible galactic vista. The contrast between her realistically painted flesh tones and the cold blue of space is striking.

This captures a fantastic sense of wonder in as profound a way as the first one does, but with a very different execution.


Here is another artist, John Harris. Harris is an American artist and his specialty is spaceships… BIG spaceships. The sense of wonder in Harris’ paintings usually come from the sense of sheer scale that he manages to put into his pictures. Here is one that has some reference points for the scale (although Harris can get across that sense of size without anything to reference it against – I don’t know how he does it). This painting depicts crowds of people dwarfed to almost insignificance by the mammoth craft into which they are embarking.

One gets the sense that this ship is about to make a voyage across the immense interstellar void and the people – thousands of people – will be making her their home for the next few years – centuries? It could be a generation ship.

For those familiar with the concepts of space travel as depicted in some of the best science fiction, this painting keys directly in to that sense of wonder.


Here’s one by John Berkey, one of my favourite space artists. His spaceships are graceful, elegant, incredibly detailed and yet full of a sense of power. Berkey created his ships purely with paint. You can even see the pain strokes that look almost carelessly applied to the canvas. It’s anything but careless, of course. Berkey is a master and here he uses all of his talents to create a work that is stunning, regal and full of that sense of wonder.

These are just a few examples of images that evoke what the best science fiction does. These images make us see a bigger, vaster, grander picture. They help us to open our minds to amazing concepts and ideas while at the same time stirring something in our souls.

Just like the best written science fiction these images bring out our sense of wonder.

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