What is Portal Fiction? (And Why It’s SO Awesome)
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Fiction can take many shapes. Some of it is based in complete fantasy worlds, while others are rooted deeply in reality. But what about those works that straddle two worlds? I’ve got a special place in my heart for portal fiction. So let’s explore at a few examples and what makes them oh so irresistible.
What Do I Mean by a “Portal Fiction”?
Strictly speaking, a portal could be described as any kind of doorway or threshold. In fiction, the means of conjuring it often defines whether you are dealing with Science Fiction or Fantasy. Sometimes, the doorway is naturally occurring, or it could be created. But the most important aspect is that things on the other side are somehow different from our own world.
There’s also literature that involves crossing into strange landscapes on our own planet, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Lost World. However, the protagonist must cross great distances to reach their destination, often into territories that are unfamiliar far before they become fantastical. This includes tales where the human race is traveling into deep space, or an alien race lands on our planet and begins to affect the landscape (e.g. Annihilation). There are also plenty of situations where a character finds out the world is far more marvelous and frightening than they ever imagined, like The Mortal Instruments Series or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
However, this isn’t really what I mean by portal fiction. Though these examples deal with crossing a threshold, be they physical or existential, there is still just one world. No matter how stupendous, all of the things coexist on a single plane of existence. Portal fiction requires a wider scope than seeding our own world with a few changes. On the other hand, pure Fantasy or Sci-Fi worlds are often without limits.
Portal fiction, which usually has a person from our world as the protagonist, can create a more immediate connection to the character’s experience because it is closer to the reader’s own. The zeitgeist (spirit) of the time and place they come from colors their perceptions of where they go. This can make the story feel accessible and familiar, and so more tangible and believable.
Let’s explore a few examples in classic literature to illustrate what I mean. Then we’ll take a look at more contemporary examples.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll
Whether you’ve read the original text or only seen the animated Disney film, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with this story penned in 1865. Alice is a sweet girl whose unwavering kindness helps see her through various trials and tribulations after she wanders into a rabbit hole.
What you may not know is that many people have speculated that mathematics inspired many aspects of the tale. There are also clear parallels between some of the bizarre folks who populate Wonderland and real Victorian era figures. This lends an air of satire and parody to what appears to be a surreal dream on the surface. In 1871, Alice returned to Wonderland by going Through the Looking Glass.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
For many fantasy fans, this book served as their introduction to the genre. (Tolkien, of course being another well-trodden path, but taking place in a fully different world.) The land of Narnia touches our world at a particular point in space and time, creating the bridge through the wardrobe. But as the story progresses, it seems to be no accident that the Pevensie children find themselves in this strange world inhabited by fawns, talking beasts, and witches. It’s their destiny to save Narnia and become the rulers.
Many scholars view the kingly lion, Aslan, who dies and is resurrected, as a Christ figure. The author was certainly a godly man, so using fantasy to retell a Biblical story would make sense for him. The Chronicles of Narnia series spans seven books, and all but one of them are about children transported from our world to Narnia.
The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum
Speaking of both witches and movies you’ve probably seen, this series of novels also contains moving between two completely different realms. Dorothy reaches Oz by way of a tornado, and all she wants until the end is to reach home. Like Lewis Caroll, Baum wrote quite a lot of satire into his fantasy tale. “Oz” is the abbreviation for “ounce,” and both the “yellow brick road” (gold) and Dorothy’s silver shoes (they only made them ruby slippers to take advantage of the newly perfected color film) are vital to the story, as well as the debate raging at the time of its writing over whether the US should adopt the gold or silver standard. (You can read more about the nuances here if you are interested.)
Categorizing Gets Tricky
Oftentimes, portal fiction ends up on the screen either instead of or in addition to the printed page. This is both because of a dedicated fanbase, but also because whole new worlds are often so visually stimulating. I considered moving chronologically through the rest of my examples, but because there are often more than one adaptation in different media, this proved too complex.
I also thought about trying to give Science Fiction examples grouped together and Fantasy ones in their own group. But portals are really one of those tropes where the lines get blurry simply because actual gateways to parallel universes have only been theorized. Instead, I thought we could look at some examples based on how the portals occur and what kinds of stories they facilitate.
Naturally Occurring Gateways
In my classic literature examples, all three of the portals are naturally occurring. The authors really don’t put any detail into how they got there or why. This gives them the feeling of a force of nature rather than something created with a purpose. (Though as I pointed out above, Narnia can also be viewed as destiny playing a part.) I believe one big reason for this was that the authors didn’t decide to write about portals because they were interested in the mechanics. They had messages that they wanted to convey using a fantasy setting, and portals were a device they could use to share them.
In my first novel, Riftmaker, I employed the same method. I wanted to address the themes of prejudice and tolerance that continue to be vital to our progress as a species. But I wanted to do it without being preachy or appropriating the experience of people who are far more susceptible to prejudice than myself. (As a white cis-female from an affluent background, I am anything by oppressed.)
I kept coming back to the phrase, “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” and decided to subvert it. What if people were prejudiced against a whole population for something they couldn’t even see? And what if they didn’t stop there, building their entire society around an idea that one type of person was superior to others without any proof? Using a portal was a way to address these issues, but intertwine it with enough bells, whistles, and adventure so the message didn’t hit readers over the head. (Or at least, I hope I didn’t give anyone a headache!)
I decided to make my rifts a random, natural occurrence, but one that could also be forced by a special riftmaker machine (AKA through fantasy masquerading as science). Which makes it straddle the line between the “force of nature” approach and…
Portals with Purpose
In Hellboy, written and illustrated by Mike Mignola, the titular character comes from another dimension. Resurrected Rasputin has a plot to release the Ogdru Jahad in order to bring about a new era. (Both this premise and the Ogdru Jahad also remind me of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, both for their inherent evil-ness and the propensity towards tentacles.) Like in Riftmaker, Rasputin employs technology to open his portal. But he only keeps it open long enough for Hellboy to pass through it the first time.
Unlike most of the portal fiction I’ve encountered, the protagonist in Hellboy is from the other world and has to try to find a way to fit in to ours instead. It’s a different flavor of the same problem, and makes for a great internal conflict. He’s a giant red man with horns who just wants to be treated like everyone else. When once-again resurrected Rasputin makes another attempt decades later, Hellboy has to decide if our world is worth saving. Or if he should just give in to his destiny as the key to the Ogdru Jahad’s escape.
Speaking of impending doom, unfortunately for the countries bordering the Pacific Rim, we are also the victims of portals opened by malign forces. At first, people believe the “kaiju” (think Godzilla or Gamera) are a bizarre but natural or accidental phenomenon. (Spoiler alert!) By the end of the movie, they discover that the rift deep below the ocean is on fact part of a plan to takeover Earth. The beings on the other side send kaiju to soften up the local population before launching a full attack.
The Marvel Universe
In Marvel’s Dr. Strange, sorcerers use a “mirror universe” to practice their powers. This ensures they don’t mess up the regular world by mistake. They also use portals to get from point A to point B, but this mirror universe is its own realm where the rules of physics no longer apply. The sorcerers use a combo of special symbols, precise hand-waving, and clarity of thought/purpose to open their gateways.
Marvel also uses the idea of portals in the world of the Thor movies and comics. They borrow heavily from Norse mythology and combine it with high-tech science-y fiction for a very cool hybrid. There are seven realms that can be accessed purposefully via the Bifrost (or as I call it, the rainbow ice bridge in space). When the realms all come in to alignment, this access can spell doom for them all if the wrong entity controls it.
Another way to open a gateway is through a magical object. I’m using “magic” quite loosely here because as I said before, even the Sci-Fi stories that use portals aren’t really operating on concrete facts. Sometimes, the portals are created because somebody (or god, or alien, etc.) created a special object to open them. And the protagonist accidentally stumbles upon the means to move between worlds.
For instance, in Jumanji (book 1981, film 1995), a board game with a mind of its own is unearthed in a small town. Only children can hear the mysterious drumming, which compels them to look inside. In the first installment, one of these kids is sucked inside the jungle landscape of the Jumanji. He manages to survive to adulthood and eventually escape. In the sequel, several teens become their avatars in a video game version and must find their way home by winning the game. (This is along the lines of many LitRPG games, though not all. So I am not going to discuss things like Ready Player One (2011 book, 2018 film) or Tron (1982)/Tron: Legacy (2010) in this article.)
One of the strongest inspirations behind Riftmaker was the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. In The Subtle Knife, a boy becomes the keeper of a blade that can find the snags in space-time and cut open doorways. What they find out by the end of the series is that every time this happens, soul-sucking beasties are released. The origin of the knife is never explained.
The 2008 film Forbidden Kingdom also features a magical object. A special staff in the back of an old man’s shop turns out to be the key to entering heaven. There, mythological Chinese figures like the Jade Emperor and the Monkey King sometimes walk among the inhabitants. This is another “there’s no place like home” type story where the main purpose is to just get out. But the main character finds his courage (not to mention mad fighting skills) along the way.
Another type of gateway that is quite common in Science Fiction is a wormhole. The theory is that black holes on opposite sides of the universe connect to one another. the point where their centers of gravity have bent space-time in a way for them to touch. Occasionally, these wormholes are human or alien-made creations, such as the permanent pathway between the Gamma Quadrant and Bajoran space in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Stargate. Stargate is especially interesting to me because the gateway itself is akin to a magical object in that the humans discover them fully formed. One of the factual issues with black hole-wormholes is that the gravitational forces involved are nearly insurmountable. This is true even in the most theoretical of physics.
Though things are certainly different in an unexplored part of the universe, this is more akin to Journey to the Center of the Earth than true portal fiction because they have things like universal translators that make communication with humanoid races fairly straightforward, but also because a distance is traversed. It may be done thousands of lightyears faster than without the wormhole, but if a ship flew long enough, they’d get there eventually. However, no matter how far I walk, I will never reach Narnia without the wardrobe.
Which brings me to another type of “squishy” example. Sometimes, the planet itself is divided into one realm where magic is possible and one where it isn’t. There is often a wall, such as in Stardust by Neil Gaiman, A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin, or The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix. These fall more on the portal fiction end of the continuum than Harry Potter because there is a distinct separation of the two spheres. They are almost antithetical to one another, and where they touch, there is difficulty for both sides. A distance is crossed, but the rules are also quite different on each side of the threshold. This conceit helps to perform the same function as the fish out of water portal protagonist. So, if you enjoy portal fiction, there’s also plenty in this type of “wall fiction” to love.
Life is but a Dream
Last but not least, there are the worlds within dreams. Mirrormask, a film written by Neil Gaiman, almost all takes place within the mind of the main character. (Are we sensing a pattern here? Gaiman clearly loves to play with the interaction between fantasy and the real world. Other examples in his work are Coraline and Neverwhere, but I didn’t want to make this “The Neil Gaiman Show” no matter how much I love him!)
You get a good look at Helena’s real life as the child of circus owners struggling to make ends meet. Then, you’re thrust into her nightmare/dream world inspired by her real world drawings. Helena goes on a quest to save the queen (who is also her real world mother going in for surgery). Then, she finds out that her doppelganger is trying to take over the life she’s taken for granted. Gaiman does a fantastic double-cross to get the character (and the audience) into the world of the dream. Helena wakes up from a nightmare before walking out the door into the dream world. This is one of my all-time favorite movies, by the way. Definitely check it out if you are a fan of the surreal.
So Much to Love About Portal Fiction
In case you haven’t picked up on it, I am a huge fan of portal fiction. In addition to Riftmaker, I’ve also got another portal story in the works. It uses the idea of separate but related worlds and draws its inspiration from Grimm’s fairy tales. There’s plenty more examples than what I could put in one article. So feel free to give a shout out to your favorite piece of portal fiction in the comments!
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