The author’s name, facility with language, best-seller-dom, college degrees, previous success, and awards are irrelevant. Authors can lose sensa-wunda with one book. They can regain it with the next.
An example for me is Frank Herbert’s DUNE books. The original “first book” made me say to myself, “Wow. I never thought of that.” It is now buried among seventeen books written by Herbert himself, his son, and Kevin J. Anderson.
Don’t get me wrong – the sensa-wunda does not necessarily speak to quality. A book that evokes this sense can be a well-written piece of literature, but to evoke a sensa-wunda this isn’t an essential ingredient.
With my own, personal definition in place then, how would I evaluate science fiction being published today?
Oh, one last thing, this wasn’t my own idea – it was a panel discussion at a small convention I attended recently. The guest was a favorite author of mine who HAS written several books that evoked a sensa-wunda in me. He had several things to say – but the rest of the panel and the crowd had even more to say. One of the things that was iterated over and over…by this group of mostly overweight social misfits…was that of COURSE speculative fiction hasn’t lost its sensa-wunda! Of COURSE everyone in the room was elderly because science fiction is evoking that sensa-wunda in the young people of today! Wasn’t it obvious...
Nope. It weren’t.
Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” (Analog, September 2010) is a recent example. While life forms living in the atmosphere of the Sun aren’t new here – David Brin did them in his first novel SUNDIVER – evangelizing them into the Church of Latter Day Saints did evoke that sensa-wunda in me.
Chen Qiufan wrote “Year of the Rat” in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF. His dark world of a future that holds bioengineering gone awry is both cautionary and it took me someplace I had not been…in its vision, it evoked my sensa-wunda by creating a place so dark and with characters so real that I couldn’t help but set it down and go, “Wow. I never thought of that.”
As far as novels go – I don’t know. How can you possibly compare anything to James Morrow’s TOWING JEHOVAH for sheer sensa-wunda? The concept there, while antithetical to my own personal beliefs is absolutely stunning. Gene Wolf’s BOOK OF THE LONG SUN does the same thing for me. When I finished the first two books, I had to wait for some time before proceeding on with the last two. I’m still waiting, actually...Mary Doria Russell’s THE SPARROW is another book that evoked a startling sensa-wunda. How about more recently?
One place to start looking is novels that won both the Nebula and the Hugo. The Nebula is the speculative fiction equivalent of the Oscar which is presented by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Hugo is more like the People’s Choice which is sponsored by Proctor & Gamble after polling the world movie, TV and music public. The link here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_joint_winners_of_the_Hugo_and_Nebula_awards presents novels that have won both a Nebula and a Hugo. I’ve read many of them, but since the question above is “Has Science Fiction Still Got It?”, I’m going to stay within five years of the present.
There are three novels that won both since 2008: THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, WINDUP GIRL, BLACK OUT/ALL CLEAR, and AMONG OTHERS. I read the second and did not personally experience a sensa-wunda. I plan on reading the other three eventually but just haven’t gotten to them.
Since 2008, the novels that have left me with that feeling do NOT include any of the dozens of “military SF” books. I don’t even think their intent is to create a sensa-wunda – their intent is to entertain. I WAS entertained with several of them, but I never thought “Wow. I never thought of that.”
This list (http://listverse.com/2008/03/03/top-10-most-influential-science-fiction-writers/) is made up of 8 dead white guys plus two living white guys. How can THIS be a valid list of the “10 Most Influential SF Writers”???? Where’s Octavia Butler? How about Ursula K. Leguin? Samuel R. Delaney? Sheesh! (All of these have made me utter the sentence, “Wow. I never thought of that.” But since then – AND science fiction?)
Hmmm. Let’s see: though it wasn’t to my taste and I can’t say I “liked” it, LITTLE BROTHER was chilling and definitely evoked a sensa-wunda. Others by a favorite author of mine didn’t evoke the sensa-wunda though they were entertaining. Still others exited the realm of novel and became exercises in axe-grinding, strident polemics, or thinly-veiled propaganda.
To answer the question simply then, I’d say that science fiction still has a sensa-wunda. But I have serious concerns. This year’s Hugo winner, while immensely entertaining and by an author who made me say, “Wow. I never thought of that.” with his first novel makes me worry.
By some definition, science fiction is "the literature of ideas", by others: “…Damon Knight…‘what we point to when we say it’…Mark C. Glassy…‘you don't know what it is, but you know it when you see it.’…Robert A. Heinlein ‘realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method…’Rod Serling...the improbable made possible.’…Lester del Rey…there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction.’” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction)
Science fiction still has it, but it seems like it is sparking that sense less and less and returning to the old stuff more and more. This won't go very far in drawing new, young readers and writers and it stands on the brink of losing older readers and writers as well.
My takeaway from this is that I need to be on the lookout for and WRITE science fiction that evokes this sensa-wunda. Anyone else have an opinion they’ll share?