Thursday, October 01, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Sensawunda

Artist's impression of an Orbital from the &qu...
Sensawunda (n.) - Sci-fi slang term for sense of wonder, used to describe emotionally stirring or intellectually stimulating concepts depicted within speculative fiction. Golden Age science fiction is often lauded for its surplus sensawunda, with point-of-view characters constantly amazed at the scope, scale, and strangeness of creatures, locales, and technologies featured in these sci-fi stories. A.E. Van Vogt's Empire of Isher series is often cited as a classic example of a sensawunda tale, as are the various Heinlein juveniles like Rocket Ship Galileo and Farmer in the Sky. To this day, the original Star Wars is held up as the paramount cinematic example of sensawunda, even if its various prequels utterly failed to live up to this standard.

Contemporary science fiction is often criticized for lacking sensawunda, especially as concerns fashionably cynical or jaded protagonists who are never amazed or inspired by their objectively fantastic and extraordinary experiences. Many critics have cited this sensawunda deficit as the reason why fantasy has overtaken science fiction in mainstream literary success, with the Harry Potter phenomenon --  and its willing embrace of sensawunda -- serving as exhibit A. Moreover, many modern characters are meta-aware, often acting as if they know they are in a fictional setting and using their knowledge of standard spec-fic tropes to navigate and outsmart the challenges of their own stories. This has the effect of being alternately hilarious (in the case of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series) or diminishing of the story; if the main character does not take it seriously, how can the reader? Iain Banks and John Varley have consciously tried to recapture the sensawunda flair of these classic sci-fi tales, with Varley explicitly channeling Heinlein juveniles in his Red Thunder and its sequels, and Banks engaging in gleeful Golden Age romanticism in his novel Feersum Endjinn.

I bring it up because: Today is the 51st anniversary of the incorporation of NASA, and if ever a real-world entity attained and then lost a sensawunda, it's the American space agency. While NASA is objectively doing faster, better, cheaper space exploration today with its advanced satellites, deep-space probes and robot rovers, it has lost the pioneer flare (and bottomless Cold War budget) that captured the imagination during the heady days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. The upcoming Project Constellation and its Ares V rockets and Altair and Orion spacecraft harken back to the golden age of manned spaceflight, but no one is certain they will ever actually get built and, if they do, whether they'll feel just like a remake of a classic tale that has, sadly, loss it originality and sensawunda. Let's hope the critics are wrong, because the world is a brighter place when our reach exceeds our grasp, and the sky is filled with manned rockets daring for the stars.

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