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Renewing Our Wonder

Renewing our wonder is perhaps the real gift of all speculative fiction, which points to the ultimate source of all wonder: God Himself.
| Sep 16, 2011 | No comments |

If you pick up a copy of Ray Bradbury’s classic, The Martian Chronicles, you’ll find a lift quote in the front matter. The quote goes like this:

It is good to renew one’s wonder, said the philosopher. Space travel has again made children of us all.

When I taught this book in my American Literature classes, I’d take time to point out the obvious – that stories of space travel can renew our wonder too. This is precisely what The Martian Chronicles did and continues to do for me.

Renewing our wonder is perhaps the real gift of all speculative fiction.

(As an aside, all fans of speculative fiction owe an enormous debt to Bradbury’s Chronicles [1950] and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy [1951-1953]. Together, I consider them the ‘fathers’ – or perhaps, grandfathers – of modern science fiction.)

We’ve always looked to stories to renew our wonder. When I was a boy, I loved to curl up in my bedroom with an anthology of Greek mythology. Here was a world of wonder indeed! The golden fleece, Medusa’s head and the golden apples of Hesperides provided ample challenges for Jason, Perseus and Hercules. They took me with them on their heroic quests and my imagination soared to worlds unknown.

Indeed, there are few repositories of wonder as rich as the world of Greek mythology (and Norse mythology too, though it is darker and not as well known to most of us). The world of the ancient Greeks didn’t extend much further than the Mediterranean, so they didn’t have to look too far to find mystery in the unknown, and they let their imaginations run wild as they filled it with things both wondrous and strange.

As time passed and our knowledge of the world grew, we still saw adventure and possibilities for wonder beyond the edge of our maps. Early in the 14th century, Dante pictured purgatory as a mountain island in the southern hemisphere. At the turn of the 20th Century, H. Rider Haggard looked to the dark continent of Africa for a backdrop for stories about ancient treasures and the fountain of youth.

This impulse to look for wonder in the unknown dies hard. Even in our own time, with all we know about our world, with the nooks and crevices of our planet explored, we still look. We may look through the mists of time to find adventure in another Age, or through a wardrobe that’s really a portal, or lift our eyes to the stars – but we still look. (Hence Bradbury’s quote about space travel and Star Trek’s famous reference to space as the final frontier.)

The human heart longs for mystery and wonder, as the great stories and storytellers of our past have always known.

Some might ask, why is this and is it good? I suggest to you that the yearning for wonder is built into each of us by our creator, who is Himself a God of wonder. This longing for wonder is perhaps just an echo of our deep and abiding longing for glory, and the stories of wonder we tell one another are perhaps just one of many ways we image our creator with our own creative efforts.

Of course, it does not follow from any of this that all such stories are good, or that every last aspect of any particular one is good – I certainly wouldn’t like to defend all that’s been written and published under the label, ‘speculative fiction.’ Even so, I do think that both the impulse to tell these stories and the delight we find in them is good. It is part of who we are, an aspect of the imago dei in man.

In his sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” John Keats describes reading great stories as traveling in “realms of gold” and compares the exhilaration of doing that to what Cortez must have felt when he first spied the Pacific in his exploration of the New World. In many ways, Keats saw the world very differently than I do, but to this observation that books open doorways to breathtaking vistas I say “Amen!”

God bless speculative fiction and its capacity to renew our wonder, to lift our eyes above the near horizon. Sometimes we have to look away to see what is obscured by the mundane and the routine all around us.

One day, creation will be restored, and nothing will need to be renewed, ever again. Until then, read on my friend.

It is good to renew one’s wonder.

Binding of the Blade author L. B. Graham loved school so much that he never left, transitioning seamlessly between life as a student and life as a teacher. He and his family now live in St. Louis, Missouri. They would like one day to have a house by the sea, which he wants to call “The Grey Havens.” He and his wife have two children. Both love books, which pleases him immensely.

L. B. holds a B.A. in Literature from Wheaton College, and an M.Div from Covenant Seminary.  He is chairman of the Bible department and teacher of worldviews at Westminster Christian Academy. Of his five-book epic fantasy series The Binding of the Blade (from 2004 to 2008), the first novel, Beyond the Summerland, was a Christy Award finalist in 2005. He has also written several articles in IVP’s Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.

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Well said.

Kessie Carroll
Kessie Carroll

I think it was the preface to Starswarm, by Jerry Pournelle, that put me on the track of that “Sense of wonder”. He talks about growing up reading those science fiction magazines in the 50s that were big on rocket ships, lasers, aliens, and hot babes, but were weak on real science. But they sure had a sense of wonder going for them.
He went on to talk about Heinlein’s juvie fiction, and that’s why he was writing Starswarm. I adored Starswarm, so I went hunting juvie fiction–Heinlein’s, Bradbury’s. It’s actually hard to find, but the sense of wonder is there. The questions that don’t get answered, because nobody knows the answers. The people who go looking for the answers and find things stranger and more wondrous than they ever imagined.
I think that’s why Hollywood keeps doing the whole “Lost World” motif every few years. We just love being plunged into a wild, primordial world where nothing is what we expect.
I’d love to see more sense of wonder in Christian spec fic. I haven’t read the books that have come out in the last ten years, though, so I don’t know how much that’s changed. (Christmas is coming, though!)

Maria Tatham

LB, you reminded me of an essential igredient of speculative or fantasy fiction, the wonder and yearning it evokes; whether that fiction is ‘Space the final frontier…’ or Tolkien’s luminous The Silmarillion.
I enjoyed recalling my own first venture into reading Greek myths. These tales, simply told and illustrated, took me to another world entirely. Later I read The Odyssey and The Iliad with amazement.  
Now, I must read something I missed, it seems, except for the miniseries–The Martian Chronicles.  Thanks for the lead…