THR Web Features   /   April 13, 2023

Wonder-Working Powers

How fiction’s enchantments make the world more alive.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Aurora borealis over Jokulsarlon, Iceland; John A. Davis/Shutterstock.)

She went to the window. Old Stephen was ahead of her. There he stood, outside, gazing down over the bush. And she gazed, astounded—and entranced, much against her will. For it looked as if every tree, every bush, all the earth, were lit with pale flames. The locusts were fanning their wings to free them of the night dews. There was a shimmer of red-tinged gold light everywhere.

She went out to join the old man, stepping carefully among the insects. The two stood and watched. Overhead the sky was blue—blue and clear.

“Pretty,” said old Stephen with satisfaction.

Well, thought Margaret, we may be ruined, we may be bankrupt, but not everyone has seen a locust army fanning their wings at dawn.

“A Mild Attack of Locusts” (1955) by Doris Lessing

Late in this quiet meal Ann looked around curiously at her companions, suddenly awed by the spectacle of human adaptability. Here they were eating their dinner, talking over the low boom from the north, in a perfect illusion of dining-room conviviality; it might have been anywhere anytime, and their tired faces bright with some collective success, or merely with the pleasure of eating together—while just outside their chamber the broken world roared, and rockfall could annihilate them at any instant. And it came to her that the pleasure and stability of dining rooms had always occurred against such a backdrop, against the catastrophic background of universal chaos; such moments of calm were things as fragile and transitory as soap bubbles, destined to burst almost as soon as they blew into existence.

Red Mars (1992) by Kim Stanley Robinson

Again and again the girl waited for the next hilltop to refresh the eye with some variation, some new prospect, but always it was the same endless repetition except that the gleaming waters of the lake had long since been left in the rear. She had lost all her anticipation and had long grown tired of expecting anything in particular when the road, turning suddenly, dipped downward along the side of a deep ravine with a river at the bottom. And when she looked eastward along the gap, expecting to see another hill in front of her, lo and behold, there was nothing to see; it was as if the world came to a sudden stop before her eyes and the depth of the skies took its place, though with a different shade of blue. Or was it that the sky was supported out on the horizon there by a gleaming wall of blue-green glass? This strange blue colour seemed to embrace all the mysteries of distance, and she stood for a moment overwhelmed by the prospect of such infinity. It was as if she had come to the edge of the world.

“Father,” she said in a perplexed and hesitating voice, “where are we?”

“We’ve crossed the heath,” he replied. “That’s the ocean.”

“The ocean,” she repeated in an awe-struck whisper.

Independent People (1935) by Halldór Laxness (trans. J.A. Thompson)

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle famously declared that “it is through wonder”—the Greek word is thaumazein—“that men now begin and originally began to philosophize.” Starting with perplexities close at hand, he explains, the first philosophers soon turned their inquiries to remoter marvels—the sun, the moon, the stars, the origin of the cosmos. But philosophers are not the only cultivators of wonder in Aristotle’s assessment. In a delightful aside, he argues that the “myth-lover” should be recognized as a kind of philosopher, a “lover of wisdom” too, “since myths are filled with wonders.”

As with everything Aristotle wrote, these words have been amply debated. Was he championing myth against the poetry-phobic Plato? Was he proposing myths as an incubator of philosophical topics or even future wonder-filled philosophers? Was he just being naïve? Thankfully, our concern, the art of fiction, doesn’t require a verdict on such questions. What matters for us is that long ago the great philosopher recognized that not only the universe but also the stories we tell about it ignite our capacity for wonder. Before moving the ancients to philosophize, wonder made them sing.

Of course, one rarely meets the old gods in the house of fiction these days, though if you wander into the more fantastic corridors you can still catch a glimpse, as Homer did, of Poseidon riding in his chariot over the waves as sea-beasts gambol in his wake. But even amid—or better said, because of—our modern, disenchanted world, storytellers remain the votaries of wonder. As critic Rita Felski has well observed, even so-called realist novels, despite their “scientific and historical pretensions,” are “imbued with magic.” Realism—no less than fantasy and sci-fi—“makes us see things, creates spellbinding fictions and special effects, specializes in hocus-pocus.”

But how, we may then wonder, does the magic trick work? What are these “special effects” of which Felski speaks? The most obvious strategy is to introduce objects and occurrences that lie far outside almost anyone’s—and certainly the imagined reader’s—everyday experience. Doris Lessing’s “A Mild Attack of Locusts,” her first short story published in the New Yorker, describes such an event. The story’s setting is a farm in the Southern Rhodesia—today’s Zimbabwe—of Lessing’s youth. There we join Margaret, white city slicker from Johannesburg, as she witnesses the descent of the titular locusts and the largely futile efforts of her husband, father-in-law (old Stephen), and black hired hands to ward off the intruders.

The scenario offers a case study in the literary construction of wonder. First, wonder is modeled by the characters’ reactions. When the swarm appears—an ominous “streak of rust-colored air”—the whole household stands and “gazes,” even though the government had warned them of the threat and time should be of the essence in readying defenses. The next morning, as seen in my chosen passage, Margaret and her father-in-law are still gazing—the former, “astounded—and entranced, much against her will”—as the swarm departs. The philosopher Adam Smith counts this involuntary absorption—even when “forewarned of what we are to see”—among wonder’s telltale symptoms. Wonder has its own physiology (including, as Smith notes, “rolling of the eyes,” “suspension of the breath,” and “swelling of the heart”) and rattled psychology. Wonders frustrate our attempts to place them, making us ask, in Smith’s words, “What sort of a thing can that be? What is that like?”

That befuddlement is, within the art of fiction, an opportunity. For at such moments, writers show their worth, finding words to describe that which eludes us mortals. Thus, Lessing portrays the locusts as a “long, low cloud,” “dense black clouds, reaching almost to the sun,” “a brownish-red smear,” a “reddish veil,” “pale flames,” and “small aircraft maneuvering for the takeoff.” Each image is suggestive and yet obviously wanting—otherwise we wouldn’t need so many in so short a space. That failure, though, is part of Lessing’s representation of this overwhelming sight; the flurry of words contributes, in turn, to our sense of the terrible beauty of the destroyer.

Correcting a poet who had attributed wonder to God, Samuel Johnson once observed that “that Infinite Knowledge can never wonder. All wonder is the effect of novelty upon ignorance. Wonder, Johnson recognized, is a distinctly human trait; it reflects the limitations of our point of view. This is an insight shared by the best practitioners of the art of fiction, including the Nobel laureate Lessing. Throughout the story, the narrator privileges Margaret’s perspective, just as we see in the extract. The choice is consequential because, as an urbanite, she has no earlier experiences that might have dulled her encounter with the descending locusts. Margaret is an outsider like us, and, therefore, the character best positioned to mediate the marvel for us.

To witness something truly wonderful, as Margaret does, is not without risk—a marvel may take more than our breath. At the same time, Margaret acknowledges a recompense in the locusts’ visitation. Her fear of bankruptcy is balanced by the knowledge that she has been enriched within by the vision at daybreak. (The taciturn Stephen hints that he has been too.) Wonders—when they can be endured—may appear at last precious, revelatory, a gift.

“A Mild Attack of the Locusts” promotes wonder through an eruption within everyday life. My second passage, drawn from the first book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, reverses that formula, wondering at a quotidian affair set against an extraordinary background. Genre matters here. Wonders are the stock-in-trade of sci-fiction and fantasy novels; by transporting us out of this world, or at least the world as we normally experience it, these fictions are marvelous by definition.

Red Mars does not disappoint in this regard, supplying numerous arresting descriptions of the red planet. Here too, the characters serve as model wonderers. (“The sky was a pink shaded with sandy tans, a color richer and more subtle than any in the photos. ‘Look at the sky,’ Ann was saying, ‘look at the sky.’”) In some of the book’s bravura passages, moreover, the narrator invites us to wonder at Mars’s “mineral”—not biological—”existence”: “The colored sands in their patterns, the fluted and scalloped canyon walls, the volcanoes rising right through the sky, the rubbled rock of the chaotic terrain, the infinity of craters, ringed emblems of the planet’s beginning… Beautiful, or harsher than that: spare, austere, stripped down, silent, stoic, rocky, changeless. Sublime.”

In my selection, though, the marvel is not Mars but human life. Once again, context and perspective are important. The passage appears toward the close of the novel, after rebellion against Earthly forces has failed and in the midst of a flood that is permanently transforming the planet’s surface. A remnant of the original landing party—“the first hundred”—is now being ferried to a hidden refuge, including the geologist Ann Clayborne, from whose perspective we witness the mealtime “spectacle of human adaptability.” Leader of the Red Movement that resisted terraforming (keep Mars red!), Ann now teeters on the edge of breakdown.

That is a boon for Robinson, for as Ann wobbles existentially, she becomes a vehicle for defamiliarization. Uniquely attuned to the landscape, she hears it utter “a kind of glossolalia”—speaking in tongues—“The inchoate roar smashed at the air, and quivered their stomachs like some bass tearing of the world’s fabric.” More strikingly still, her human companions take on fresh dimensions. As we see in the extract, Ann perceives not just humans’ ability to adapt—to drown out “the boom” while they eat, to not be overwhelmed by the perilous wonders around them. She sees afresh the human position in the universe. Wonder is again produced by adjusting perspective. But while Lessing capitalizes on her character’s inexperience, Robinson shows us that wonder can be produced by expanding the scales of time and space. Set “against the catastrophic background of universal chaos,” nothing seems more marvelous than a moment of calm.

In this regard, Robinson is moving in the direction to which Felski beckoned us: He’s helping us to see our world anew—to recognize the extraordinary nature of the spaces and rituals we mark off as ordinary. But fiction can, as Felski insists, achieve this effect without the expense of a Mars mission. As my final example shows, wonders may await us over the next hilltop.

Halldór Laxness’s Independent People chronicles the hardscrabble existence of the crofter Bjartur and his household at Summerhouses, a smallholding in Iceland. The farm is a very small world, and this passage reminds the reader of how insular the characters’ lives have been. Here the crofter’s adopted daughter, the adolescent Asta Sollilja (“Beloved Sun-Lily”), encounters the Atlantic for the first time, despite, of course, living her whole life on an island ringed by it. The scene is a combination of the techniques observed above. Laxness exploits his character’s ignorance to revivify the marvel lapping against our coasts. He emphasizes that our bodies lack sufficient instruments to comprehend this vast blue-green infinity; the girl cannot place it conceptually, cannot take it all in. Viewed through Asta Sollilja’s eyes, the ocean may as well be the surface of another planet.

I close with this episode for an additional reason. While Asta may be meeting the ocean for the first time, she has glimpsed it before. Her education to this point has chiefly consisted of Iceland’s heroic ballads, the rímur, and now that reading takes on new dimensions: “this was the very ocean over which young heroes sailed to win fame in the Rhymes.” The sea had already been enchanted by her reading; she arrived, like Aristotle’s myth-lover, steeped in literary marvels, and her encounter does nothing to diminish the grandeur of the old songs. “To her had been given the good fortune,” Laxness writes, “of looking upon the sea that swirls about the lands of romance; the road to the incredible.” And yet, what she had imagined still pales in comparison to the reality: “Even in her wildest fancies the ocean had never been so huge.” The wonder has expanded the dimensions of her mind.

Felski is right to locate fiction, realist and fantastic, in the field of practical magic; it has wonder-working powers. But this magic is of a curious variety, for fiction’s enchantments do not trap us within the pages of books. When the spell is really working, the art of fiction throws us back into the world more alive to its bountiful wonders.