Sensawunda and the Great Moments of Science Fiction
Sensawunda is the SF slang for "sense of wonder".
It is not enough for me to present a wonder-inspiring world. The characters that inhabit that world but also be aware of its wonderful nature, and the reader must be able to identify their own wonder at their own world, right now, in the wonder of the character.
The great moments of science fiction are the moments when the character first comes upon a wonder which - in this present time - is quite astonishing, and instead of the character accepting this wonder as "just the way the world is", he or she finds himself unexpectedly swept away with surprise and fear, not at the terrible beauty of the wonder, but by an unexpected and intimate significance which then immediately follows the appearence of the wonder. It is the heaping of internal wonder on top of external spectacle that produces the science fiction sublime.
This is the science fiction sublime mode: that, in the midst of feeling astonishment at the fruits of science, one makes a startling discovery about the nature of reality that completely transcends the science itself.
I'll give two examples:
In the Matrix trilogy, for instance, Neo entering the City of the Machines is less wonderful than Neo flying above the clouds of war and being the first human to see sunlight in centuries - the sublime here is the "seeing the light".
Or in Asimov's Foundation books, Gaal Dornick's arrival on the city-planet of Trantor is less wonderful than the fact of his immediate arrest and partaking in one of the greatest trials in history - the persecution of Hari Seldon. The sublime here is the persecution of wisdom.
In both these cases, the rhetorical device of the physical wonders - the Cities of the Machines and of Trantor - serves to displace and then paradoxically AMPLIFY the wonder felt by the intimate discoveries the characters make immediately after arriving in these places.