Tue
Feb 15 2011 12:07pm

The Unreal, and Why We Love It, the Final Part: Wonder

Life of Pi by Yann MartelIn Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the main character Pi Patel is helping to transport some zoo animals from India to America, when his ship goes down. What follows is a strange, magic realist journey in a lifeboat with a bengal tiger called Richard Parker, featuring carnivorous islands and unlikely encounters with blind Frenchmen... or maybe not.

Later on, questioned by two investigators, he tells a different story. This time there are no animals, no mystical experiences. He relates a tale of being trapped in the lifeboat with the ship’s cook, who gradually resorts to cannibalism. Both stories parallel each other, and both end in the same room. And when he finishes, Pi asks the investigators this:

“I told you two stories... You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it... So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

And in the end, his interrogators are forced to agree—the one with animals is better. They prefer the one that is less likely, the one that features an Indian teenager surviving for months in a lifeboat with a tiger. Not because it tells us something different—Pi still suffers, he still survives, and in both the tiger is gone by the time he is found. But because it opens their eyes, just for a moment, to extraordinary possibility. For a moment, they see their predictable world in a new way, they feel a sense of wonder.

And wonder, in the end, is surely what fantasy and science fiction is all about.

Wonder is more than just excitement about new ideas. Reading about a race of aliens who communicate entirely through recipes is interesting, and a concept worth at least a short story. But if the idea is really explored, it won’t be long before little hints of reality will start creeping through. Maybe the tale will look into the similarity between recipes and fundamental chemical reactions. Perhaps it will even summon up the imagery of potion-brewing, and turn science back into something awe-inspiring and magical. Or maybe the entire story is just a satire of TV chefs. But the point is, a piece of fiction, something entirely imaginary, can make us look at the real world in a different way. It refreshes our brains, enliven our feelings, maybe even changes our outlook. Not bad for a bit of ink and paper.

(And if you don’t believe that a compelling story can be based around non-human characters finding themselves through cookery, you really need to watch Pixar’s Ratatouille)

Sometimes, the wonder is directly invoked, and painted on a vast canvas. In the new series of Doctor Who, each episode seems determined to compete with all previous ones in the scale of the threat that can be defeated by a madman with a box, a woman in an extraordinarily short skirt, and her endlessly patient husband. Doctor Who began its existence trying to be educational, and whilst that aspect slipped away pretty rapidly, the brilliance of the format—that the TARDIS can take its crew anywhere and anywhen—means that it will never reach a point where it runs out of ideas. If the TARDIS doors open and the sight doesn’t take your breath away, they’re not doing it right. Or they’re about to do a very creepy episode and you should get behind the sofa now.

Sometimes, though, the wonder is more personalised. Look at the antics of Phineas and Ferb. These two young mad scientists are fully capable of building a submarine, complete with shrink-ray, in the time it takes to make a cheese sandwich. But their ambitions stretch no further than having the “best day ever,” and no one (apart from their increasingly disbelieving sister) ever regards the boys’ actions as extraordinary. It doesn’t make the slightest attempt at realism in exploring the repercussions of the inventions, so instead its optimism and warm humour shine through. There’s a sense that creativity is wondrous for its own sake, no matter how ambitious it is, and I think that’s the appeal of this show. Well, that and the platypus secret agent. Because who wouldn’t enjoy a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal of ACTION?

All fiction is about seeing the world through another’s eyes. But unreal fiction is all the more vivid because of its range of experience. Nothing is off limits, nothing too strange, or scary, or complex, or joyful. I’ve heard fantasy described as “childish,” and I think it is, in the best possible sense of the word. It thrives on that willingness that children have to run with an idea or an image as far as it can go, and return to reality still buzzing with it. In my own writing for young adults, (which I have been shamelessly promoting in my biographical squib at the end of each article), I try to capture that joy of the almost-real; of dark, dreaming forests and complex otherworldly cities; of fantasy worlds that could be ours, behind a weird and wonderful mask.

Some people look at clouds, and see the shapes of fantastic animals. Some people look at them and see a marvel of nature, great masses of water droplets, ready to fall and bring the earth to life. I say that they can be both at once—and the real wonder is that we, as imaginative human beings, can find both interpretations inspiring. Fantasy and science fiction are real and unreal, of this world and others, brim-full with imagination, and in everything around us.

But then, that’s so many other stories.

And I think it’s about time I went away and wrote some of them. 

You can read the entire 7-part Thoughts on the Unreal series here.


David Whitley is 26, British, and the writer of the Agora Trilogy—book #2, The Children of the Lost, is just out in the U.S. He spends quite a lot of time looking at clouds, but none of them have yet formed into Lion heads with the voice of James Earl Jones. He lives in hope. 

3 comments
Stefan Jones
1. Stefan Jones
There is another reason to prefer Pi's "animal version" of the story:

The version of the voyage without the tiger starts out with others in the lifeboat. How the passenger list is whittled down to just Pi is . . . horrible.
Stefan Jones
2. Leah Hansen
Thank you so much for your articles, David---I have truly enjoyed them! You have put into eloquent words things that I have long felt but haven't quite been able to express, myself. Thank you for that.

And I look forward to reading "The Midnight Charter", which arrived in the mail last week and is on my book pile this very moment. :-)
Stefan Jones
3. etranger
I love Life of Pi, it's one of my favorite books. However, I think that it has more to do with a belief in God, faith, and even the goodness of humanity than any "sense of wonder" (not that those are necessarily mutually exclusive ideas). As Stefan Jones commented, the "human version" of Pi's voyage is much more horrible. The investigators decided that they could more readily believe something that flew in the face of their knowledge about the physical world, than something that contradicted what they wanted to believe about people and morality. In this sense, the novel is all about faith.

Btw, you might want to post a spoiler warning about the book, as this post reveals the ending.

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