The last time I blogged about a word that annoys me, it was “snark” (ugh, even writing the word makes my skin crawl). I recently realized that I hate the word “sensawunda” in pretty much the same way, except so much more so. For those not in the know, this is a term that science fiction writers and readers will often use to describe the feeling one feels when one looks or reads about really cool future-type stuff in SF books, movies, TV shows, etc.
Unlike “snark,” which seemed to fill some sort of semantic space not currently occupied by other words, I don’t really see what function “sensawunda” fills that is not filled equally well by the phrase “sense of wonder.” I mean, on the one hand, of course people are allowed to jargonize anything they want. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what’s being done here. And I generally don’t think that terms need a particular reason to exist. Usually, the fact that someone wants to use them is reason enough, for me.
But on the other hand, I just really hate the term. I think it’s primarily because of the usage. To me “sensawunda” sounds so sneering and in-jokey. It’s supposed to refer to something thrilling, a feeling that’s evoked by Dyson spheres, and grey goo, and generation ships, and singularities, and all kinds of awesome stuff…but it’s also somehow reduces that feeling. Because I don’t think that the feeling, that “sense of wonder”, is restricted to technological shit. It’s the feeling we get whenever our imagination turns impossibilities, however briefly, into possibilities. I experience a sense of wonder whenever I think, “Wow, someday I’m going to be, like, 80 years old” (well, if the lung cancer doesn’t get me). I experience that feeling when I read a book written in English in the 1700s and think, “Someone is directly communicating with me at a distance of 300 years”.
“Sensawunda” serves to sever the feeling we experience from thinking about cool technological shit (which is pretty much one of the commonest feelings in the world) from all the other times we experience this same feeling. As such, I think that when people talk about bringing the “sensawunda” back into SF, their use of that term obscures the feeling that they’re really talking about and actually makes it harder to find a real sense of wonder in works of SF. I really don’t have a problem with more gadgets and more cool technological stuff, but I also don’t think we should think that filling up stories with gadgets and neato physics is necessarily going to generate wonder by itself.
Also, the term mostly gets used as a bludgeon against some unspecified “other” people who are ruining the genre, as in this tweet by Jetse De Vries (which prompted this post): “SF—rare exceptions acknowledged—lost its sensawunda, by dropping its innate inquisitiveness in favour of relentless nihilism.”
I’m probably caricaturing the usage of the term, but in my mind, it’s mostly used by people saying, “Man, what’s all this other stuff? Just put some generation ships or some self-replicating nanobots in there.”