Ask fans of science fiction literature what it is they love about reading science fiction and many of them will come back with: "Sensawunda." No, that's not some Swedish word for spaceships or scantily clad Martian princesses: it's an abbreviation of sorts for "Sense of Wonder," a concept that embodies the Wow Factor of science fiction. It’s a term first used by one of science fiction's most influential editors, Hugo Gernsback. But what does it really mean?
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At its heart, sense of wonder is a feeling of awe. It's that jaw-dropping response one has when confronted with an object or idea that stretches the limits of prior conceptions. It's when mankind first went into space and saw the Earth hanging in the sky, and it’s seeing what the surface of Mars looks like. It's the first time you saw the opening shot of Star Wars. In sf literature, it's when the reader realizes just how strange and wonderful some fantastic concept can be. It immediately follows that final click of understanding, when all of the puzzle pieces fall in place and you see something from a new perspective.
There are several techniques writers employ to evoke Wow Factor. One of the most common is through scale. By making things incredibly huge or unbelievably small, a writer can begin to force the reader to see things from a new perspective. In Robert Reed's book, Marrow, for example, an unoccupied alien space ship the size of a large planet is used by humans to travel around the galaxy. (Because, you know, sometimes a ship only as big as a small planet just won't do.) While the concept may superficially sound like "The Love Boat...in Spaaace!", what Reed has created is not just an ship of exploration, but a ship which itself is the object of exploration. Similarly large and wondrous objects can be found in Larry Niven's Ringworld, with its ring-shaped structure that's one million miles wide and has a diameter equal to that of Earth's orbit around the sun, and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, which features a perfectly cylindrical ship 20 kilometers in diameter and 54 kilometers long. Playing with scale works the other way, too. There's plenty of wonder to be found in Flux, a novel by Stephen Baxter whose characters are microscopic human beings that live inside a star.
Whether big or small, it's worth noting that a change of scale alone does not necessarily evoke wonder; it's the mind-expanding idea that's attached to the big and small that does the trick. It’s realizing that some alien intelligence had to actually build the ship of Marrow, or that the interior of a star could be made habitable. When a story presents a mind-expanding idea, you wrap your mind around it. When that conceptual breakthrough happens, you feel a sense of awe.
Sense of wonder is not confined to space either. Consider, for example, the idea of teleportation. What essentially happens is that the physical and mental make-up of a human being is analyzed, encoded and transmitted to another location. Sure, that's a cool idea all by itself, but consider this: whatever can be recorded can be copied, and whatever can be copied can be stolen. (This was the core concept, by the way, behind The Resurrected Man by Sean Williams.) We're not talking about an mp3 of the latest Lady Gaga song; we're talking about a human being. What starts as a simple concept—something we've seen hundreds of times on Star Trek—is pushed a little further into areas not previously considered. It's a new perspective.
And that's when the sense of wonder begins...
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.