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Speculative fiction has established a lengthy and varied tradition when it comes to portals: doorways opening between worlds to spirit the characters away on a journey of the fantastic; wormholes, black holes, or other passageways serving as means of instant teleportation through space and time. The hero who steps through a portal immerses themself in the new world, mingling with its inhabitants, although they might still feel nostalgic for their place of origin. This hero is fulfilling a destiny foretold or rewriting the stars of their own story, fragment by broken fragment.

Then there are those interstitial pocket dimensions caught between universes, where someone can slip through the cracks unnoticed. Liminal spaces are elusive and ephemeral. The protagonist may linger within their hazy borders, but they cannot become integrated or remain there long-term without facing internal or external consequences.

The word “liminality” comes from the Latin root limen: a threshold or period of transition. The doorstep of the portal which grants ingress to secondary worlds, galaxies, and other dimensions is a liminal space: an in-between state of being, rooted in realism but still infused with magic throughout its essence. It resembles the center of a fairytale crossroads before a path has been chosen. This fabulist, dreamlike place is almost fluid; it can act as a shelter offering escape and protection, but also as a cell, a trap, or a cognitive maze. 

For speculative readers, one of the earliest, most concrete examples of the abstract liminal space comes from Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, which was recently made into an HBO series. The second installment—and most recent season—introduces us to the city of magpies. Cittàgazze, a once-splendid mercantile port, has fallen into disrepair ever since the adults abandoned it to seek safety from the Spectres preying on the soul of anyone past childhood. In this halfway universe tucked between worlds, main characters Lyra and Will find food left half-eaten, beds unmade, whole lives deserted in a hurry. The two young runaways take shelter in this curious city, far from those chasing them in their parallel Oxfords.

Another recent television example is Amazon Prime’s mini-series Good Omens, based on the novel written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman over three decades ago. “Come up with something… or I’ll never talk to you again,” threatens the angel Aziraphale when the Apocalypse is upon them, and all hope seems lost. Snapped out of his trance, the demon Crowley uses his occult powers to freeze time. He creates a desert-like bubble of pale sand stretching in all directions with no other living being in sight. In that frozen world of liminality, Crowley, Aziraphale, and Adam—the eleven-year-old Antichrist—figure out a way to stop the combined forces of Heaven and Hell from annihilating humanity.

Although liminal spaces complement the emotional scope of genre fiction, the idea of liminality was not born within a speculative context. Philosophers, theologians, and social scientists have attempted to define liminal thinking throughout history. It has links to the Buddhist practice of mindful meditation and to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The place where thought itself originates is a liminal space in which ideas exist between conception and actualization.

This theory takes the shape of noetic architectures such as the Memory Palace, a mnemonic technique that follows the ancient Greek and Roman method of loci: visualizing a series of structures, then mentally ‘walking’ through them to recall the information committed to each location. Another attempt to lend form to the abstract are the Akashic records introduced by the school of anthroposophy: an ethereal, cosmic database in the mental plane, and a compendium of all thoughts, events, and feelings in the universe.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s acclaimed second novel, unfolds inside the House, a setting that embodies the combined traits of the Memory Palace and the Akashic records. The House is a foyer leading travelers to grander, full-fledged worlds—an endless labyrinth that contains the run-off of all thought. Every idea of our world trickles into the realm of that semi-sentient, museum-like building. These ideas manifest as classical statues, each tableau a creative interpretation that once more brings to mind Plato’s cave: the shadows versus the material objects they represent. In this surreal structure filled with clouds, tides, bones, and albatrosses, the narrator finds profound beauty, even comfort, through his solitary exploration—although the reader soon realizes this liminality has been enforced on the amnesiac protagonist against his will.

The name Piranesi, given to Clarke’s protagonist by his captor, is a direct reference to the 18th- century artist and architect best known for his etchings of imaginary prisons (Carceri d’invenzione): looming towers of dark stone, sprawling bridges, tilting staircases, curious apparatuses, and elaborate structures that diverge and intersect like mazes. These compositions inspire a mixture of awe and claustrophobia—conflicting emotions inherent in unreal architecture. Similarly, Mark Z. Danielewski’s cult classic novel House of Leaves deals with a home that is larger on the inside than it appears on the outside, harboring shifting spaces and cramped hallways where no light reaches. Sections of the book itself are arranged in a labyrinthine layout and printed in fluid, experimental typography.

This blend of fear and fascination comes up in L Chan’s short story, The Spelunker’s Guide to Unreal Architecture, recently published in The Dark Magazine. The story follows two old friends and hobbyist explorers as they enter a building shown on no map. There but not there, the house’s details translate differently in the eye of each beholder—rooms and floors ever-changing, reality and physics warped, vastness always on the verge of vanishing. On the stairs of that building, the characters must grapple with their guilt over a past spelunking tragedy. Liminal spaces in speculative narratives often act as echo chambers, where every emotion and thought is reverberated and amplified.

Liminal spaces play an essential role in the television mini-series WandaVision. Unable to handle the pain of losing her partner, Vision, during the events of Avengers: Infinity War, Wanda creates an energy field around a small suburban town, ensnaring its inhabitants in a world of her own making. This bubble exists outside of time and space as we know it: decades fast forward and rewind, settings switch on a whim between different sitcoms, monochrome bleeds into glorious technicolor. Wanda forces the residents of Westview to perform assigned roles and tropes in a desperate attempt to reassert control over her narrative, casting herself in the familiar, comforting movies of her youth. But despite her immense powers, she cannot keep up the maintenance of the town: her fabricated nuclear family is falling apart, and so is Wanda herself, suspended on the threshold between the stages of grief.

Another word for liminality is limbo. Not everyone who exists in these intermediate zones chooses them freely. Society pushes people of marginalized identities to its fringe, making them feel alien and out of place in their surroundings, interpersonal relationships, and workplaces. Other times, liminal spaces are carved out and embraced because the real-life alternative feels so much harder to bear. In such cases, fictional and cerebral bubbles can offer what reality doesn’t: escapism. We immerse ourselves in storytelling to keep the outside world at a distance; then, once the last page turns or the credits roll, we preserve the story’s universe through our impressions. We make it malleable, filter it through personal experiences and preferences, rework it and remix it to safeguard its escapist aspects.

Engaging in transformative work (such as fanart, fanfiction, and role-playing) can also prolong the feeling of escape that speculative media offers. For a lot of readers and writers, fanfiction provides safety and control, especially since the characters are already familiar—proxies easy to mold and customize. Fanworks are valuable tools for understanding ourselves, parsing trauma, and working through emotions in a safe, controlled space. It may feel equivalent to tucking oneself away from the world, cradled within a holloway or other hybrid pocket of mental architecture. 

On sites such as Archive of Our Own, authors curate content through comprehensive tags, warnings, and descriptions. However, it’s becoming increasingly common for a subset of fanfiction readers—and by extension, readers of most escapist literature—to project that need for neatness and control onto all fictional works, including “dark” fanworks. These generalizations and moral campaigns allow no room for genres like horror, weird, and transgressive fiction to explore the full spectrum of the human condition. Some criticize queer, disabled, and PoC creators for portraying their own identities in ways deemed “harmful” or “unsafe,” simply because they bring the outside world’s harsh reality into the liminal realm of compartmentalized imagination. Although knowing and asserting one’s boundaries is essential, to engage with storytelling only under hyper-specific, fear-fueled conditions is to limit oneself from experiencing the whole scope of creativity—to fall into patterns of self-censorship and avoidance.

Inner peace and tranquility are possible in the liminal; we find beauty and self-assurance in isolation and meditative thinking. Piranesi experiences transcendental comfort during his journey in the labyrinth. Lyra and Will turn the Cittàgazze into a safe space where they get to know each other, take a break from running, and come to terms with their feelings—Lyra about her scheming, manipulative mother, and Will about his absent explorer father. In the Good Omens TV adaptation, we see the characters visit the imaginary desert outside the borders of linear time only for a few minutes; that brief reprieve, though, is crucial in allowing them to gather their wits and avert the Apocalypse without casualties. Wanda conjures the sitcoms she used to watch with her parents before their sudden deaths, thus recreating a happy place for herself.  

Yet, if Piranesi had not left the House, he would have lost himself. With no way of recovering his former memories, he would have remained alone for the rest of his days, seeking solace only in the stone embrace of the statues, until his bones joined those of the labyrinth’s past wanderers. Lyra and Will could have stayed in the adultless, derelict wonderland they had stumbled upon, but that would have meant letting the world fight its deadly war while they hid away from anyone and anything—as well as from their own coming of age. If Crowley, Aziraphale, and Adam had lived in the sands of time forever, the Earth wouldn’t have ended, but it wouldn’t have kept spinning either—an insect trapped in amber. Had Wanda continued to play pretend in a world of her own making, she would have kept violating the autonomy of the real, breathing people involved in her fantasy, while she let her grief fester as she refused to face it head-on.

When does the shelter transform into a cell? When does the pursuit of pure thought, pure idealism, pure escapism become detrimental? The fantasy may turn maladaptive if we use liminality as an instrument not of self-discovery, but of self-obfuscation. Spiritual hunts remain unfeasible if we ignore our physical and emotional needs to focus only on aesthetic. The mind and body cannot yet exist independently of one another. Transhumanism—brains swimming in vats free of corporeal constraints; consciousness uploaded in cyberspace; the self transmuted into ones and zeros—is still only a theory.

What do we owe to each other?, asks Chidi Anagonye, professor of Ethics and Moral Philosophy and one of the main characters of The Good Place. The series's fabricated afterlife is another example of liminal space: a seemingly pastel-perfect neighborhood. What happens when we abandon our world of origin to chase chimeric dreams of the elusive in-between? Although liminality is not synonymous with loneliness, solitude characterizes liminal spaces. They offer freedom of artistic and intellectual experimentation, but they isolate the self from the whole, from society’s troubles and wonders, from the need for companionship, community, solidarity.

Before stories are told, they exist in the realm of possibility, a limbo reminiscent of a child’s dollhouse or a puppeteer’s shadow theater—every marionette string and storytelling thread controlled by its creator. Stories enter the known world the moment they are written in ink or pixels; painted on cave walls like the mineral crayon figures of Lascaux; told around a fire like a Balkan folk ballad. Stories are told again and again through oral tradition until each of them becomes a unique, dynamic, fantastic palimpsest that lasts generations.

It’s easy to become lost in liminality—the labyrinth that leads to all routes of thought and speculation, to much-desired escapism. No labyrinth, though, exists in a vacuum, impenetrable by reality; heroes must leave it behind if they are to continue on their journey. Piranesi found the beauty in his own world and its people, while keeping the ability to access the House whenever he needed an escape from the chaos of mundane existence. The heroes who healed their wounds within their little pockets of unreal architecture and private hideaways moved on to help their friends, their worlds, and themselves.

Altogether, liminal spaces can be places of rest and reprieve, both in speculative media and in real life. They are sanctuaries where we replenish creative energy, restore strength, absorb safety into the psyche. However, liminality can also become an unhealthy coping strategy, a prison that restricts the self, isolating it from any social context. The true sublime beauty, comfort, and intrigue of liminal spaces lie in their transience, their ethereal ephemerality. Heroes may choose to linger on the threshold between worlds for as long as needed. In the end, though, the doorstep of that portal must be crossed.

Avra Margariti is a queer author, Greek sea monster, and Rhysling-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Vastarien, Asimov's, and F&SF. The Saint of Witches, Avra’s debut collection of horror poetry, is available from Weasel Press. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).
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27 Nov 2023

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