Sci-Fi and Fantasy often provide new worlds for readers to explore. A purer form of escapism would be hard to find. In many cases a book immediately immerses you in a new world. If you read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, you start in the far future with dudes in powered armor nuking hostile aliens. A Game Of Thrones opens in a fantastic land with three desperate Nights Watchmen encountering the undead.
Of late I seem to be gravitating toward a slightly subtler brand of escape in my sci-fi and fantasy reading. Maybe it comes from my own interest in parallel and alternate worlds, but the idea of a character from our world discovering and crossing into a new one fascinates me. This is a sub-genre that in my experience has no real name. So I’ll call it “threshold sci-fi,” as the characters involved often do pass through or cross some physical, or metaphysical line into another world. I’ll talk about one I’m reading now, and a few of my other favorites, and maybe folks who read this can add a few more titles that fit the label.
The Skin Map by Steven Lawhead. The first book in the Bright Empires series features the protagonist, Kit, a twenty-something Londoner with a largely unfulfilled life, meeting his 125-year-old great grandfather after taking an ill advised short cut in a dirty alleyway. Actually a ley-line bridging multiple “Earths” and time periods, the alley leads Kit to his long missing and presumed dead great grandfather, and opens whole new worlds of danger and adventure to him. Sinister forces move through these worlds, and heroes and villains find themselves seeking a map etched on pieces of human skin. Finding the map will unlock the pathways to power and control of this amazing multiverse. After showing the usual befuddlement one would assume comes when everything you thought you knew about the universe proves untrue, Kit rises to the occasion and embarks on a grand adventure. This one is really hitting the “threshold sci-fi” sweet spot for me, and I cannot wait to finish it and move on to the next book in the series.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This one might be more “urban fantasy” than “threshold sci-fi,” but it still fits my newly minted category, I think. Modern Londoner Richard Mayhew makes a fateful decision to aid a homeless woman in distress, but finds more than he bargains for when she turns out to be a member of a heretofore unknown society of magical subterraneans. Torn from the safety of his humdrum life, Richard struggles to survive in a London Underground of magic and mystery. While Richard winds up a bit wimpy for my taste, Gaiman’s awesome world building abilities shine through and make you believe the magical realm beneath London really could exist. In the end Richard has to choose between worlds; he cannot live in both. This choice is often a feature of “threshold sci-fi.” Once a character crosses that line, he undergoes a transformation of some kind. Sometimes it’s physical, but often it represents a changed world view that makes returning to his old life impossible.
Imajica by Clive Barker. I’ve written about this one in other posts, but I love it so much, I am going to talk about it again here! London artist John Furie Zacharias, also known as “Gentle”, becomes embroiled in strange events that lead him to revelations of other worlds connected to Earth by a strange void called the “In Ovo.” While mind blowing in itself, Gentle quickly learns that beings from these other worlds want his girlfriend dead, and that he himself is part of a grander destiny that will force him to cross the In Ovo and accept his heretofore unknown powers. Another Londoner? Is this a pattern? I promise it’s not! You don’t have to be a Londoner to become embroiled in a “threshold sci-fi” story, but author Clive Barker is British, and his almost lyrical ability to write both about London and the strange environs beyond the In Ovo make this massive tome of a tale worth the ride.
The Gates To Witch World by Andre Norton. I’ve written about this one before too, but the first book in this collection, Witch World, is quintessential “threshold sci-fi,” and bears mentioning again here. Simon Tregarth (not a Londoner) is a desperate, war-haunted man hunted by assassins and forced to choose escape by the most desperate of measures, the Siege Perilous. In passing through it the person incurs its judgment and travels to another place worthy of his or her character and standing. Tregarth gets the Witch World. Norton takes the Siege Perilous from Arthurian legend and makes it the ultimate threshold of no return.
Plenty of other books and series feature threshold themes, mixing them with urban fantasy or straight-up fantasy trappings. The key for me remains the element of choice. Every good threshold story features a moment where the protagonist crosses over, and his or her life changes forever because of it.
Still, if you know of the location of any such threshold in our own world, Siege Perilous or not, let me know! While I am not a Londoner, I’d certainly be up for trying my luck! In the meantime, share any titles you might know of that fit into this tiny corner of the sci-fi genre.