A Sense of Wonder
Anyone who knows me well knows my guilty secret. Yes, I am a science fiction addict; at my most content when curled up on a weekend with a terrific book, a steaming cup of coffee within arm’s reach. I do not use ‘addict’ lightly. Give me a few weeks without a new, mind-bending story and I’m grimly skulking around corridors, cranky and cantankerous, wondering where to get my next fix.
The best science fiction is not about faster-than-light spaceships and pew-pew guns, the popularity of Star Wars notwithstanding. There are dozens of sub-genres within SF, from the highly visible space opera to lesser known hard SF, dystopias, cyberpunk, steampunk, alternate history and so on. What is common to all of them, and what makes science fiction so compelling to me, is the sense of wonder that the best of the genre can evoke.
Sense of Wonder n. A feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible.
Excerpted from Brave New Words: the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
Decades ago I would sit crouched in my mother’s garden marveling at how
marigolds bloomed from seeds pushed in the ground. I would peer into my father’s vintage KLH speakers fascinated by how the tiny people inside could play music (or so I imagined). As a five-year-old, both were equally enchanting. This unfolding of the world’s mysteries continues for all of us as we grow. And then one day we are all grown up, with answers for supposedly everything, feeling a gnawing hole left in us by this end of wonder in our lives. Science Fiction is the literature of What Ifs. It forces us again to ask big questions to which we don’t have answers. What if we could spread our minds into a dozen bodies (Ann Leckie)? What if the world had drastic overpopulation (John Brunner)? What if humans changed gender on a regular cadence (Ursula LeGuin)?
When we are drawn to visionaries, it is for the very same reason. They force us to contemplate big questions. What if we could educate all the world’s children, even in places with no access to trained teachers (Salman Khan)? What if we could get into space without exclusively depending on huge public spending programs (Elon Musk)? What if humanity could cooperate to make knowledge freely available (Jimmy Wales)? While this list is very tech-centric, there are equally amazing visionaries in many other fields. These visionaries are not always the ones to originate ideas but they are certainly the ones who are able to recognize their value and articulate these views of what the world can be.
In a LinkedIn blog ‘The One Thing Computers Will Never Be Able To Do’, Walter Isaacson predicts that the most creative innovations of the future will come from “…the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences, and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.”
Here is an even stronger point of view on how a sense of wonder can drive history. In his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern Harvard literary historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Greenblatt attributes much of the Renaissance to the sense of wonder evoked by the poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). In this first century BCE poem, Lucretius reflects on many subjects, most notably on philosophy, sociology, physical science, and psychology. The words lay lost for 1500 years till a manuscript was rediscovered in 1471 CE in a Benedictine abbey in Germany. The powerfully prescient ideas were almost heretical in medieval Europe but the exquisite poetic expressions inspired the great minds of the time, from Galileo to Newton, to build a worldview that would ignite the Renaissance and shape the modern age.
I hear you say Why? Always Why? You see things; and you say Why? But I dream things that never were; and I say Why not?
- George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah
The fine line between visionaries and SF authors is one of near-term viability. When a vision is within a first order iteration of the current state (of technology, of science, of society), we call these people innovators. When it is beyond our present-day capabilities, we call them science fiction writers. And the distinction is often temporary — after all, communication networks, geostationary satellites, flat screen displays and the moon landing were all in science fiction decades before they ever became reality.
Since I opened with one confession, here’s another. In my job I am fortunate to have frequent meetings with startup founders to learn about what they are building. While I’m always happy to meet them, no matter how prosaic the idea, the founders I secretly root for are the ones who dream big. Whose vision goes well beyond revenue and an exit. Who want to change the world. No matter that the odds are not in their favor, the ideas that make me go “Ahhh” are the ones filled with riveting potential for our future.
The bigger the vision, the more drawn we are to it. What I look for in great SF is the same thing we all seek in visionaries. When we find people at the pinnacle of John Maxwell’s five levels of leadership, we look to follow them for the vision they create, for what they represent. Like in the best speculative fiction, they are able to transport us with them to a future that tantalizingly resonates and where we long to be. We are willing to work hard to make their visions a reality, not for reward or recognition but for purpose and, perhaps, for a life less ordinary. For this allows us once again to be as children, wide-eyed and amazed by the everyday miracles of a brand new world.
Originally published at www.linkedin.com on December 11, 2014.