Childlike Wonder and the Truths of Science Fiction

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Date: 1982
From: Children's Literature(Vol. 10)
Reprint In: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 116)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,364 words

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[(essay date 1982) In the following essay, L'Engle--author of A Wrinkle in Time--contends that children are more receptive to science fiction due to their innate willingness to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the story rather than the details surrounding it.]

For the last hundred years, the number of people who read fantasy and science fiction has been growing. One of the baffling things about this group--baffling to those who are not hooked on the genres--is that it has no age limits. Aficionados usually start reading as children and continue throughout their lives. I blundered into science fiction when I was a child, with the works of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and E. Nesbit. I have read it ever since. In science fiction I found the questions about the meaning of life that all of us ask sooner or later. Children have always been interested in these cosmic questions and riddles which adults often attempt to tame by placing into categories fit only for scientists or adults or theologians. Only recently have fantasy and science fiction been published with age levels in mind, and readers seem to be ignoring such labels. Science fiction and fantasy appeal to a certain kind of mind and not to specific stages of development.

On the surface, science seems to be the most rational of all disciplines, relying solely on intellect without need of the intuitive self. Simple equations--or at least simple in appearance--neatly encapsulate great problems. E = mc2 clearly teaches that "energy equals mass times the speed of light squared." Yet this equation has become so familiar that we forget its wildly imaginative implications. The world of contemporary science, of astrophysics and cellular biology, is itself so fantastic and poetic that it almost seems like fiction. A star that is known as a degenerate white dwarf, or another known as the red giant sitting on the horizontal branch--they sound more as if they come from fairy tales rather than from serious books on astrophysics, such as White Holes: Cosmic Gushers in the Universe (Dell, 1977), by John Gribbin, an astrophysicist who sometimes cites science fiction writers in his studies of astronomy.

Science fiction, we must remind ourselves, often relies upon contemporary science. Space technology and places such as Cape Canaveral, Mount Wilson, or Alamogordo frequently appear in science fiction; and scientists, as well as writers with no particular scientific training, write science fiction. Fred Hoyle, the English astrophysicist, write both science fiction and articles for academic journals. Why does a man such as Hoyle bother with fiction when he is so successful in the "real" world of science? The answer is that science depends as much upon the imagination as upon the intellect. Like a poet, the scientist uses inspiration and intuition. In The Double Helix, the book about the discovery of DNA, James D. Watson, who received the Nobel prize for his work in genetics, says several times, "It's so pretty, it's got to be true." Inadvertently he echoes Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." If a scientific equation is "ugly" the scientist is suspicious; the scientist, like the artist, appreciates aesthetics and balance.

Lay people often envision scientists in white coats, perched on stools in immaculate laboratories, clipboards on their laps, working out problems. Most scientific discoveries, however, come in a flash, often when the scientist is not in the laboratory at all. Einstein's theory of relativity came to him full-blown, and only later did he work out the equations to prove it. Then, because he was a genius but not very good at mathematics, he made several mistakes that other scientists had to point out to him.

Both the scientist and the science fiction writer understand that imagination, improvisation, and intuition are as important as rational thinking. For a good many centuries we have denigrated the subconscious, intuitive self and elevated the conscious, intellectual self. We have forgotten that the conscious self is only that small tip of the iceberg, whereas the subconscious self is the larger part below the surface.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man (Harper Torchbooks), writes that out of his religious tradition comes "a legacy of wonder." Heschel is talking of "The Religious Man" but he could equally well be talking of the writers and readers of fantasy and science fiction when he says, "One attitude alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural cause of things. To find an approximate cause or phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder ... [which] is not the beginning of knowledge but an act that goes beyond knowledge; it does not come to an end when knowledge is acquired; it is an attitude that never ceases. There is no answer in the world to man's radical amazement" (pp. 45-46).

This sense of wonder constantly prods the imagination of the writer of fantasy or science fiction, and the child, whose sense of wonder has not yet been blunted, goes right along with it: What would life on Saturn, with all its rings, be like? Does a galaxy think? Is it a sentient entity? Do our mitochondria know that they are living with us? There is no end to the questions the sense of wonder prods us to ask, and each question can easily lead to a story.

A young friend of mine told me, with considerable agitation, that her teacher had accused her of "telling a story." This teacher wasn't complimenting the child's imagination; she had accused her of lying. Recently I received a letter from a young mother who wrote that a neighbor had announced she was not going to allow her children to make their minds fuzzy by reading fantasy or science fiction; she intended to give them books of facts about the real world. For these children, I feel, the real world will be lost. They will live in a limited world in which ideas are suspect. The monsters which all children encounter will be more monstrous because the child will not be armed with the only weapon effective against the unknown: a creative and supple imagination.

The lines between science fiction, fantasy, myth, and fairy tale are very fine, and children, unlike many adults, do not need to have their stories pigeonholed. Science fiction usually takes a contemporary scientific idea and then extrapolates: "Yes, but what if ... ?" In the days before astronauts had landed on the moon, no one was certain just what the surface of the moon would be. We knew that there would be little gravity, but we did not know whether the surface would be hard rock or rock covered with sand and silt. So one science fiction writer described a spaceship landing on the moon. The landing shifted the great layer of fine sand which had built up over the millennia and all the familiar mares and mountains vanished. The speculation of the science fiction writer is not always prophetic, but it always stirs the imagination. We are so accustomed to Jules Verne that we forget that he did, in fact, prophesy many things considered improbable in his day--flying, for example.

Fairy tales usually deal with magic, and magic has power. E. Nesbit used magic to help her protagonists journey into both the past and the future. Although her stories may seem pure fantasy, they touch science fiction, for scientists today conceive of time as nonlinear and suggest that one day it may be possible for us to move along different branches of the tree of time. Ursula Le Guin, in her children's fantasies and in her adult science fiction, touches on myth as well as fantasy and science fiction. In a similar fashion, Susan Cooper's fantasies are deeply rooted in British mythology.

Any story, whether myth, fantasy, fairy tale, or science fiction, explores and moves beyond daily concerns to wonder. A story, instead of taking a child away from real life, prepares him to live in real life with courage and expectancy. A child denied imaginative literature is likely to have more difficulty understanding cellular biology or post-Newtonian physics than the child whose imagination has been stretched by fantasy and science fiction.

The teacher who, with the child, enjoys this stretching (and the stretching of muscles causes healthy growing pains) is aware of human potential. Such a teacher does not neglect the child who does not "fit in" or who cannot come to grips with the curriculum. Thomas Edison was withdrawn from school in the second grade because his teacher considered him uneducable; his mother's faith, her conviction that he was not stupid, led her to tutor him at home. It is not always the bright and well-adjusted child who has the imagination to leap beyond convention to truth, a truth which may upset "grown-ups." Galileo's discoveries did not upset the nature of the universe; they upset only what the established authorities considered to be the nature of the universe.

I remember a science fiction story in which the people of Earth were attempting to colonize a planet with bad weather and hostile inhabitants. The head of colonization picked teams of the brightest and best young men and women available. Team after team went out and then returned, dejected and unsuccessful. Finally a new head of colonization was chosen, who went to the waterfronts, slums, and ghettoes to enlist those who had survived there. These "dregs" succeeded where the others failed. They had the imagination to survive on a hostile earth; this imagination enabled them to survive on the hostile planet. Science fiction appeals to the child with imagination, whether he or she is captain of the sports team, honor student, or the child who lags behind intellectually, athletically, or socially.

A successful story, no matter how soaring the fantasy or how offbeat the science, must be believable. A child must be encouraged to suspend disbelief. Tolkien's hobbits are as realistic to a child as Judy Blume's teenagers, and Anne McCaffrey's dragons are as believable as giraffes. To quote Aristotle, "That which is probable and impossible is better than that which is possible and improbable."

Unfortunately, this "probable impossible" is fraught with risk, and risk implies the possibility of failure and even death. I am worried that we live in a climate where we are not allowed to fail. We are encouraged to take few risks, though "all human endeavor is beset by risk," as Franz König says: "Freedom risks its own abuse, thinking risks error, speech risks misunderstanding, faith risks failure, hope risks despair. The risk of life is death. And man is man only by virtue of his risks of the future."

Perhaps the reason that a mother refuses to give her children fantasy or science fiction is that these genres, like fairy tale and myth, are not only violent, but they involve risk. Why do we shudder at the violence in these tales while the violence of everyday life surrounds us? These stories can help children understand the nature of violence. As for risk--without risk there is no story. The protagonist must always choose, and to choose is to risk. Failure often occurs. In The Once and Future King there is death and tragedy as well as heroism and chivalry. In The Lord of the Rings Frodo does not always make the right choice. The planet on which a spaceship lands may not support human life. The captain of the spaceship may be bestial and may not care if the indigenous inhabitants are slaughtered. There is risk of failure, of horror, and of death in fantasy and science fiction just as there is in the world of everyday. In John Wyndham's "The Day of the Triffids," most of Earth's inhabitants are struck blind and many are killed, but despite a recognition of darkness and death, there is also an unspoken affirmation of the "all rightness" of things, and I believe that the child--and the adult--needs this affirmation.

Before we can affirm this "all rightness," we must accept "all wrongness," for fantasy and science fiction inhabit dark and unknown regions. Although we often think of fantasies as light, with enchanted mirrors, spaceships winging like sea gulls, and time machines shaped like flower petals, such stories speak to us, at first, of dark things. No one is more aware of the dark aspects of civilization than the storyteller; he knows our insecurities, our loneliness, and our fears. But every storyteller is also aware of the value of the human being.

In a story it is usually an ordinary boy or girl who must confront power, take risks, and stand courageous against fear. Primitive societies had two words for power: benign power was called "mana"; malign power was called "taboo." The great power lines which stretch across our country and make our lights turn on and our refrigerators run contain both mana and taboo. If we turn on a light switch and fill a room with light, then it is mana. If a metal ladder holding two firemen slips and touches a power line, it is taboo. Those who think they can cope with taboo, or can manage it, fall into hubris. They usurp the prerogatives of the gods. This is Edmund's problem in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Courage and pride are very different things. Pride masked as fear of failure often keeps us from taking risks, while courage gives us strength to face the unknown.

One of the unknowns which has always fascinated readers and writers of science fiction is time. The subconscious mind is uninhibited by linear time: when we dream, time is sometimes fantastically altered; in a few moments we may dream hours of adventure. As we venture into fantasy and science fiction, we are freed from time. A spaceship may travel at the speed of light, or near it, for short distances, but for trips to distant galaxies or even distant planets in the same galaxy, no speed is fast enough; the spaceship must tesser (go into a time warp). Our nearest star is Alpha Centauri, which is seven light years away. The problem is not only that it would take fourteen years to go there, turn right around, and come back, but that time moves at different rates, and the faster a body moves, the slower time moves. Consequently, the people on the spaceship would be caught in Einstein's clock paradox: fourteen years would have passed in their own chronologies, but far more time would have passed on Earth, so that a baby left behind when the astronauts departed would have white hair and wrinkled skin when they returned.

These current scientific concepts are more easily understood and accepted by children than by adults. Not only are they new to adults, but they also contradict what was taught only a generation or so ago. Our children and young adults have always lived in a world of increasingly rapid change; they have always known about the power in the atom. They have always known that our Earth is not the center of the universe but an ordinary planet on the outskirts of an ordinary galaxy; and that light, swift as it is, is so slow that we are seeing a distant star not as it is today, but as it was billions of years ago when our planet was first being formed. Fresh concepts, which are terrifying to some adults, are casually accepted and understood by children today.

Chronology as we know it began with creation, with the Big Bang. The present "proof" for this theory is the awesome fact that scientists, with their radio telescopes, are picking up echoes of the sound of that primal explosion, which happened so long ago that it is further back in time than most of us can conceive in numbers. There are also events, tied in with the extraordinary durability of sound waves, which are more like science fiction than actual occurrences. For instance, one of the more delightful mysteries of sound came when the astronauts in one of our early space launches heard a program of nostalgic music over the sound system. They radioed to NASA to thank whoever sent them the program. NASA responded that they knew nothing about it. This phenomenon provoked research: Who sent the astronauts the music? Where had it come from? The radio and television programs for that hour on that day were analysed. None broadcast the music the astronauts heard. Could the astronauts have imagined hearing old popular songs? Was it a kind of mass hallucination? It seemed unlikely. Then it was discovered that that particular program had been broadcast in the 1930s.

How does one explain it? One doesn't. It happened, and from events like this come science fiction stories. There is a story in which scientists from Earth are attempting to communicate with people from another planet but cannot make sense of the sounds they receive. One scientist realizes that the planet with which they are in contact is a large and dense planet, and its period of revolution around its sun is much slower than ours. He tapes the sounds and then speeds up the tape, somewhat like playing a 33⅓ rpm record at 78 rpm. Soon the scientists begin to make sense of the messages. Time on the other planet moves slower than on Earth.

We do not understand time. We know that time exists only when there is mass in motion. We also know that energy and mass are interchangeable, and that pure energy is freed from the restrictions of time. One of the reasons that A Wrinkle in Time took so long to find a publisher is that it was assumed that children would not be able to understand a sophisticated way of looking at time, would not understand Einstein's theories. But no theory is too hard for a child so long as it is part of a story; and although parents had not been taught Einstein's E = mc2 in school, their children had been.

Sylvia Louise Engdahl uses the variability of time in many of her stories, particularly in The Princess from the Stars. Time and its vagaries figure in the works of such eminent science fiction writers as Arthur C. Clarke, William Wyndham, and Theodore Sturgeon. Lewis Carroll wrote the truth when the Mad Hatter said, "If you knew Time as well as I do, ... you wouldn't talk about wasting it. It's him. ... We quarrelled last March. ... And ever since that ... he won't do a thing I ask!"

Most writers of fantasy for children do not write for children; they write for themselves. "To write for children" is usually synonymous with writing down and is an insult to children. I have said that children are better believers than grown-ups. They are aware of what most adults have forgotten: that the daily, timebound world of fact is the secondary world, and that literature, art, and music, though they are not themselves the primary world, give us glimpses of the wider world of our whole self--the self which is real enough to accept its darkness as well as its light.

There is something of the fantasy or science fiction monster in all of us, but mostly we are afraid to admit it. Chewbacca, the large woolly creature in Star Wars, is so appealing because we are free to recognize ourselves in him as well as in the white-clad hero and heroine. Rainer Maria Rilke writes, "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us."1 Stories which appeal to our imaginations enable us to recognize this helplessness and give us the courage to help.

Note

1. Rainer Marie Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (New York: W. W. Norton, 1934), pp. 69-70.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420072605