There Are Walls

by John Holbo on March 30, 2018

Another installment in my series of attempts to source tropes and themes in SF and fantasy. Help me find examples of what I’m looking for!

A very standard fantasy trope is ‘there are doors’.

In “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien implies why this must be. “The definition of a fairy-story — what it is, or what it should be — does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.” Every bit as important as the atmosphere is the border. Travel between realms is restricted and a lot of dramatic tension revolves around difficult passage. Ergo, fantasy contains fun doors, from Narnia to Monsters, Inc. to … what’s your favorite door in a fantasy novel? And the architectural inverse of ‘there are doors’ – ‘there are walls’ – is also a highly respectable trope.

That’s what I want today. Not the doors so much but the walls. Weird walls. Stories that revolve around the reality of weird, often unaccountable barriers that appear, perhaps rise up, unexpected. They challenge and provoke protagonists to go around or get through somehow. I’m happy to get fantasy examples, but I’m looking more for SF analogs of what is, originally, a fantasy – fairy story – trope. SF is full of weird doors, just like fantasy. Often these don’t come equipped with attendant walls – they’re wormholes or black holes or transporters or whatever. But sometimes you get walls. Often these are ‘pocket universe‘ stories, in effect. The protagonists bump against closer confinement than they were expecting. Hollywood has produced very memorable, evocative scenes and images: Truman bumping his boat against the painted wall of his world in The Truman Show; that scene in Dark City where the protagonists finally get to Shell Beach, find the brick wall, go to work on it; that scene in The Matrix where Mouse frantically pulls back the curtains, sees the brick wall where none should be, realizes he’s fucked.

Probably my favorite SF example (but maybe you think it’s fantasy) is Ted Chiang, “Tower of Babylon” (available in this anthology [amazon]). The miners trying to break through the vault of heaven. Of course, that story is more memorable, perhaps, for its titular tower. I’ll take them, too. Weird towers. That’s kind of a cross between a weird door and a weird wall, if you think about it.

The opening sections of Kafka’s “The Great Wall of China” qualify. That is one weird wall they are building, and for no very obvious reason.

I recently reread Theodore Cogswell, “The Wall Around The World” [amazon] – plot summary here. Not a great story, but a classic of the ‘weird wall’ genre.

So what have you got for me? I want to compile a list.

Let’s think what’s appealing about it. There’s fairy-story appeal. There’s the tantalizing ‘so close, yet so far’ dynamic. There’s claustrophobia, if the walls are closing in. Last but not least, there is a close kinship between this genre and a lot of philosophical thought experiments.

A lot of thought experiments involve locking people in little boxes. Mary, in her gray-scale room, theorizing color. (That’s a fairy-tale plot, if ever there were one. When she comes out, she is obviously going to be like Dorothy, when the Oz technicolor kicks in, and wearing ruby kicks.) Einstein’s elevator. Searle’s Chinese Room. Plato’s Cave. Schrodinger’s Cat. Maxwell’s Demon is a classic weird door guard. (Just look at the SEP entry on Thought Experiments. It contains an extremely crappy illustration of a brick wall. Just like in Dark City, but with lower production values.) It isn’t exactly mysterious why thought-experimenters keep locking people in little boxes. It’s not that they are sadists. It’s that thought experiments tend to be dramatizations of – literalizations of, idealized reifications of – relations between sub-systems. Would you be able to know about that, if all you had access to was this (in the epistemology cases)? As Huxley writes: “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”

I’m interested in this because, a lot of the time, SF stories about weird doors and weird walls are kind of suspended betwixt and between. They borrow a lot of the atmospherics of fairy tales while aspiring to the sharp edges of philosophy thought experiments.

So what have you got for me? Weird doors, but especially weird walls, especially in SF.



joel hanes 03.30.18 at 4:05 am

Baum, _Glinda_Of_Oz_

The Flatheads had to have a way from their mountain top from the plain below, but to prevent enemies from rushing up the stairs to conquer them, they have built, at a small distance before the entrance a wall of solid stone, the stones being held in place by cement, and then they made the wall invisible.


joel hanes 03.30.18 at 4:12 am

Joe Haldeman’s _Forever_War_
The Terran defensive dome is opaque and impermeable. Once it’s activated, those inside have no information about what’s happening outside the perimeter of their dome.


JakeB 03.30.18 at 4:13 am

I started thinking about the giant black walls of death in the Strugatsky Brothers’ _Far Rainbow_; but something closer to what you’re talking about is in their _Roadside Picnic_, of course, except it’s a wall between Earth and how things are after they’ve been modified. But maybe they aren’t real walls either, as it’s easy enough, albeit dangerous, to go through.


Dr. Hilarius 03.30.18 at 4:28 am

Gene Wolfe’s “There are Doors.” C. L. Moore’s “The Black God’s Kiss” has Jirel pulling out bricks from a wall in order to enter Hell.


TheSophist 03.30.18 at 4:28 am

The door of the TARDIS, I suppose. (It’s bigger on the inside.) Oh, and there’s a “you’re” in the third para that you probably don’t want.


John Holbo 03.30.18 at 4:46 am

“Gene Wolfe’s “There are Doors.””

I probably should have made clear that my title was a bit of a Wolfe nod!


William Berry 03.30.18 at 4:46 am

A bit trite, perhaps, but I like the door that opens when you “Say ‘friend’, and enter”.


Dr. Hilarius 03.30.18 at 4:51 am

I start thinking about this and more titles come to mind: Hodgson’s “House on the Borderland;” Heinlein’s “Door into Summer” are well known. “The Blind Spot” by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint is less well known (with many critics thinking deservedly so) but is certainly an early example of the type, originally serialized in Argosy magazine in 1921.


William Berry 03.30.18 at 5:04 am

But it’s a bit tricky. You don’t really want to enter.

Isn’t that true of most doors?

Jonathan Hoag’s doors were mirrors, Lovecraft’s were entrances to tombs, and the abominations within.

Only the most familiar doors are safe. And even then, not always.


Scott P. 03.30.18 at 5:15 am

The invisible barrier in Time Bandits.


dax 03.30.18 at 5:32 am

The Dispossessed begins “There was a wall.”


Gareth Wilson 03.30.18 at 5:33 am

Vernor Vinge’s Bobbles, from The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime. Perfect indestructible reflective spheres, with the contents frozen in time for arbitrary periods up to billions of years. They’re great for interstellar travel – bobble up and set off a nuke nearby to push you. And of course you never really care how fast you’re going.


Mike Lynch 03.30.18 at 5:36 am

The Ministry of Time in the recent Spanish TV series of the same name use a mysterious spiral staircase under Madrid whose thousands of numbered doors lead to specific locations and dates in Spain’s history.


susan ramirez 03.30.18 at 5:42 am

Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” built a miniworld with tiny, fast-living creatures, and made them unable to breath our atmosphere so they’d never escape. When he was threatened, he had them create an impenetrable force field around his whole island. Nobody knows what happened inside the force field after that.


John Holbo 03.30.18 at 6:03 am

The Disposesed is good. It’s all walls, but I had forgotten that opening line.


Wayne Moore 03.30.18 at 6:21 am

James Morrow, The Wine of Violence

Won’t even attempt to summarize but I think I will reread it myself if I can find it.


magistra 03.30.18 at 6:45 am

At the intersection of fantasy and SF, the Dr Who episode “Heaven Sent” has Peter Capaldi resetting his life millions of times as he punches through an impossibly hard wall.


quanticle 03.30.18 at 6:55 am

Often these don’t come equipped with attendant walls – they’re wormholes or black holes or transporters or whatever.

Every door has a wall attached, but sometimes you have to look hard in order to see it. In the case of wormholes and stargates, the wall is time. Yes, it’s possible to get to wherever the stargate leads, but it would take literally millenia to get there, with ordinary methods of propulsion. The investment of time acts as a wall higher and stronger than any physical barrier.


David J Zimny 03.30.18 at 7:11 am

Some of my favorite SF and fantasy with “Wall” themes:

Philip Jose Farmer’s “World of Tiers” series — my favorite pocket universe series with an ingenious way of walling off different cultures on a tiered planet. All six volumes are worthwhile, but check out “Behind the Walls of Terra” in particular.

Matthew Hughes, “Spiral Labyrinth” — part of his “Henghis Hapthorn” series, with a maze that’s part physical and part psychological.

Robert Silverberg’s “Man in the Maze” — the One Indispensable Man has locked himself into a labyrinth created by a dead culture to spare humanity from his alien-imposed psychological taint.

“Hyperion,” by Dan Simmons — no physical wall, but all the obstacles in getting to the “Time Tombs” certainly qualify as one hell of a barrier.

Silverberg’s “Kingdoms of the Wall” — Silverberg seems to have a thing for barriers. This “wall” is a mountain offering alleged spiritual rewards for those who can reach the summit. But no climber has ever returned….


Adam Roberts 03.30.18 at 7:44 am

The SF version of the walled city is the domed city and the first of those (influential on the many later enclosed future-cities from We to Logan’s Run, Mega City One etc) is H G Wells’s The Sleeper Wakes (1899). In that novel as in many of its textual descendants there’s a wall (with a door in it) in two senses: an actual wall separating the city from the world (Wells’s future Britain is all collectivised farmland and the whole population lives inside four giant domed cities) and a metaphorical wall separating the p.o.v. character from a proper understanding of the world he wakes into. At first Wells’s Graham thinks this future London an utopia; but in the course of the story he experiences a conceptual breakthrough and understands that for the 99% it’s a horrible dystopia.

ABC: Always Be Consider-H-G-Wells-ing.

From there it’s a short hop to all those generation starship stories, where the wall around the world literally defines habitable space by separating it from the vacuum of space.


Shimon Edelman 03.30.18 at 7:58 am

Here’s a fantasy story that I wrote a couple of years ago, with a strange wall in it — a Passover story, in fact:

The 13th Tribe.


Jim Buck 03.30.18 at 7:59 am

Doris Lessing makes much of a magic wall in Memoirs Of A Survivor.


faustusnotes 03.30.18 at 8:16 am

Mieville’s “The City and The City” has a wall between two cities that is intangible and almost there but not. I think the story is all about trying to get through the wall.

There’s a thing about walls in hyperspace. Technology breaks a barrier to get people to a new physics, and often the only interaction the people in the story have with the tech and the physics is in constructing a breach through that wall.

Actually a lot of Mieville’s work might involve walls: there is the weird moth thing that maybe came from another dimension in Perdido Street Station; the hyperspace immer of Embassytown; the weird two cities of the city and the city; the wall between Londons in UnLunDun.

There’s also a whole genre of people from now going through a wall into a fantasy world – Stephen Donaldson et al.


Zamfir 03.30.18 at 8:19 am

The city and the city, by China Mieville. The cities have an invisible ‘berlin wall’ between them, that the inhabitants can’t pass except through checkpoints. The wall seems imaginary, emperor’s clothes style, though IIRC the book never quite admits that.

FTL/nterstellar travel really is a fairy wall with doors, isn’t it? The author gets to define the rules of the door. Time dilation makes everyone back home old (very fairy that), or the spaceships are special (say, Pohl’s Gateway, where you don’t know where the ship will go or if you will return). Or you have to find the magic wormhole before you go somewhere. How many stories are there about wormhole maps, or lost planets that are returned to the Network after Isolation? Very wally, that.


MisterMr 03.30.18 at 8:53 am

“The Village”, by M. Night Shyamalan, has a very relevant wall in the story (I won’t be more specific as I don’t want to give spoilers).
I think that it’s a great movie but apparently it was a flop, the times, the customs!

I think that Tolkien, as cited by the OP, is cheating more than a bit, as he assumes that “fantasy” is the same of “fairy tales”.

The idea that fairy tales often represent a trip to the otherworld was already expressed by Propp in his work about the historical roots of fairy tales (that was translated much later than Propp’s work about the structure of fairy tales, and hence is much less famous), but Propp is clear about what is speaking about, meaning traditional, “ethnic” tales of magic, so that he excluded both “mythological” tales in the strict sense and “fantasy” stories on the other:

1) Myth: a supernatural story of religious content that is believed to be true and is handed down by a society;

2) Fairy tale: a supernatural story that is NOT believed to be true, but is still handed down by a society (has not really an “author” and is matter for ethnographers), perhaps a corruption of older myths;

3) fantasy (Propp doesn’t use this word but the logic is this): a story of invention that mimicks, to some degree, myths and fairy tales, but is not handed down by a society but written by a single individual, so cannot really be treated in the same way (e.g. Snwwhite is a fairy tale, Pinocchio and Narnia are fantasy novels for young boys).

I think that this distinction, that is very basic, is lost to many.


David J Zimny 03.30.18 at 9:00 am

Two more “weird wall” themed novels I forgot to mention —

From SF: Algis Budrys’s novel “Rogue Moon” features a homicidal maze that may well be the original inspiration for the labyrinth in Silverberg’s “Man in the Maze,” along with an intriguing human cloning method used to explore it.

From fantasy: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic treatment of the Camelot legend, “Mists of Avalon,” revolves around the daunting but permeable wall of mist separating the realm of Avalon from mundane Arthurian Britain


David Duffy 03.30.18 at 9:08 am

Walls are what you need for mazes – a recent series of books and a movie.
The other Le Guin wall is in Earthsea
Various large rings have walls to keep the air from coming out.
Tiptree’s Up the Walls of the World


Arminiuzz 03.30.18 at 9:39 am

Thank you, John, for these always interesting portals that you open between the two domains of philosophy and of science fiction.
My example, which I first came across a few months ago, is Yoon Ha Lee, with his Machineries of Empire series. He describes a phenomenon that he names calendrical heresy. In his universe, presumably far in our future, calendars are used to maintain doctrines and discipline. People who for whatever reason do not agree with the government must flee to an empire which is governed by another calendar, or are forced to adapt or be murdered. The fascinating thing in Yoon ha Lee’s universe is that certain techniques work in certain calendars and others simply do not function. Some devices, aircraft, weapons, stop functioning when they travel from one calendar to another. It almost seems in his description that natural laws change when they traverse from one calendar to another. Of course he plays with the old SF concept in which technology is like magic if it is developed far enough.


J.F. McCullers 03.30.18 at 9:42 am

1. It may not be what you’re after, but I can’t let this slide without mentioning Pink Floyd’s The Wall double-album length rock opera, which used a doorless wall as its central metaphor for alienation and isolation. In the few performances of this work by the band (and in later performances by Roger Waters), an actual wall was constructed on stage to separate the audience from the performers. For some reasons, audiences found the placement of that final block to be as much of an ecstatic moment as they found its eventual demolition at the end of the show. Alan Parker later filmed this album, with iconic animations from Gerald Scarfe.

2. Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes a city of joy in which a single ten-year-old child is forced to live in loneliness and filth in a locked basement cell with a single door.

The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer.


3. The Christian Book of Revelation devotes most of a whole chapter (21) to describing a celestial and post-apocalyptic version of the city of Jerusalem, and in particular detail its size, its construction materials, the number of gates on each wall, and so on. The description is exceedingly precise, and seems intended to provoke a sense not of isolation, but of strength and majesty.

4. A massive and mystical wall of solid ice is a central plot element in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels.


David Duffy 03.30.18 at 10:30 am

I think the Tiptree walls might be completely metaphorical – a long time since I read it.
William Tenn _The Men in the Walls_ (became _Of Men and Monsters_)
Back to Lovecraft, those weird walls and ceilings in the Witch House.


Doug T 03.30.18 at 10:43 am

William Gibson’s latest, the Peripheral, is a good SF door story, with the plot hinging on connections between the two times in the story.

On walls, how about I have No Mouth and Must Scream, in which the characters are trapped and trying to escape.


Lee A. Arnold 03.30.18 at 10:53 am

The wall, with the Gate of Dis, separating the 5th and 6th circles of Hell. The Furies and Medusa prevent the passage of Dante and Virgil, until a powerful angel from Heaven sweeps in like Mercury to open the gate with a wand, while chastising those monsters. (Inferno IX)

The wall separates the upper levels of torment for the various sins of self-indulgence or incontinence, from the deeper sins of violence and fraud. Virgil is the “Helper” in the typologies of actants in both Propp and Greimas*, but here he only helps to shield Dante’s eyes from looking at Medusa until the angel comes. The angel is not named, is brief and rather detached as if he has more important things to do, and does not speak to Virgil or Dante.

*Gerald Prince’s Dictionary of Narratology is a quick and easy guide to these typologies.


Jane 03.30.18 at 11:11 am

Not sure if this fits either of your categories but my favourite story involving a wall is “Le Passe-Muraille” (“The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls”) by Marcel Aymé.


SusanC 03.30.18 at 11:28 am

The hyperspace trope, beloved of many SF authors, is basically a higher-dimensional wall whose 3 dimensional (+ time) surface is everywhere.


SusanC 03.30.18 at 11:34 am

The Freerealms MMORPG has the Ancients’s Wall. Interestingly, it is a ruined, ex-wall rather than an actual functioning barrier in the game’s present.

(Freerealms is sort-of SF, particularly if you’ve got far enough into the game to discover some of the backstory).


Peter in Oz 03.30.18 at 11:44 am

The one that jumped to my mind before reaching the end of your post was ‘The Wall Around the World’ – the title of which I couldn’t remember, but which I read in (I think) one of those Isaac Asimov-edited collections on different themes that came out starting in the later 80s. The story was obviously good enough to stick in my mind, even though the book is long gone from my collection.

Beyond that, my brain jumped to Jack Chalker’s Well World series. It’s all about Walls and Doors. There are the Markovian gates that take the characters from their own milieu to the Well World (one way doors, for most), and that allow travel to and from the hexes on the planet and the diplomatic/government area of the polar Zones (restricted two-way doors). Then you’ve got the equatorial Wall that separates the southern hemisphere with its carbon-based life forms from the northern hemisphere with its very alien non-carbon-based life forms. And the ultimate goal in all the books (at least the original five, which are all I’ve read) is to get to the wall at the right time and with the right people to have it open and let you in to the control centre for the computer that controls and maintains the whole universe – the Well of Souls itself.


Matt 03.30.18 at 11:59 am

It’s (literally) a fairy story, and not SF, but I’m surprised not to see Neil Gaiman’s _Stardust_ mentioned – it’s set, in part, in the town of Wall, after all, and going through the gate in the wall is one of the big parts of the story.

In SF, I’ll admit that I was disappointed that, in Heinlin’s _The Cat Who Walks Through Walls_, that the cat, and its wall walking abilities, plays such a small role in the book, though maybe it was a metaphor that I didn’t get when I read it 20+ years ago.


nastywoman 03.30.18 at 12:03 pm

– a wall somebody wants to build and there is no money for it?


Daniel Hirschman 03.30.18 at 12:21 pm

In Gaiman’s Stardust, the main village is literally named “Wall”, as it sits at the edge of the land of the Fae.

Rothfuss’s “Kingkiller Chronicles” features some prominent doors (including one in the library) and the final book is to be titled “The Doors of Stone.”


Ben Alpers 03.30.18 at 12:31 pm

It’s far from a great book, but the example of an SF wall I’ve most recently encountered is in Jeremy Robinson’s Infinite in which the protagonist (thinks he has) reached the end of the universe, in a way that seems to prove he’s living in a simulation. In fact, the novel is full of such walls (and that initial one turns out not to be what it appears).


steven t johnson 03.30.18 at 12:52 pm

Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Wall of Darkness. Spoiler: The wall has only one side.

Greg Egan’s novel Quarrantine in which the entire solar system has been walled off from the rest of the universe. The wall is not material, to be sure.

Alastair Reynolds’ novel Century Rain has a door into a replica of 1959 Paris and a person from three hundred years later goes through to investigate the disappearance of another investigator.

The underrated (in my opinion) movie The Thirteenth Floor doesn’t literally have a wall. But it has an abyss where a world ends, where the wall would go. The Galouye novel this was inspired by was also done as World on a Wire, in my queue at Filmstruck.


steven t johnson 03.30.18 at 12:53 pm

PS Oh, yes, Pohl’s Heechee series is about doors.


M Caswell 03.30.18 at 1:11 pm

Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’


steven t johnson 03.30.18 at 1:24 pm

Is there a important difference between a wall and a moat/gap/chasm/abyss?


NomadUK 03.30.18 at 1:29 pm

Can’t believe this is 40+ comments in and nobody has mentioned Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Wall of Darkness’, which has always haunted me with its vision of the rising sun as they approach the other side …


NomadUK 03.30.18 at 1:33 pm

And as long as we’re on doors, there was a (what is now referred to as) Young Adult novel which I read several times as a — um — ‘young adult’, called The Forgotten Door, in which a strange boy, named by those who find him ‘John’, suddenly appears from nowhere. It seems he can read minds and speak to animals …


MisterMr 03.30.18 at 2:18 pm

@Lee A. Arnold 32

This is a bit irrelevant to the thread but it’s a pet peeve of mine:

Propp was a folklorist who was interested in fairy tales, and he came out with his structure in part as a way to distinguish “fairy tales” from other sorts of folktales. He wrote two boox: the first, “morphology of the fairy tale”, containing the famous structure, was supposed to be the introduction of the second, longer, “historical roots of the fairy tale”.

But his first book was discovered by the french structuralists, who totally disregarded the “ethnographic” attempts of Propp, pretended that Propp’s structure was ok for any story (something that Propp totally disagreed with) and created their own more abstract structure (Greimas’s structure) that is in fact way more general and abstract.
Propp’s second book disappeared from public knowledge and in fact Wikipedia doesn’t speak of it, I know it just because by chance I bought a copy of the “morphology of the fairy tale” that also contained the (much longer) second book.

This is the reason Propp complained that Levi-Strauss wasn’t interested in empirical investigation: it’s a problem of principle, because french structuralists tought in terms of very abstract “structures” that are good for everything, while Propp tought in terms of very specific structures that have to be clearly visible in the story, and are specific only to some stories.

However, Propp became famous in the west because of the french structuralists, so it’s common to have a structuralist reading of Propp, hence, for example, Propp’s “roles” (or whatever word he used in russian) are treated as “actants”, even though the word “actant” was coined much later than Propp’s writings.

Specifically, Propp’s “magic helper” is not the same than Greimas’s helper, for example in Snowwhite the Dwarves would be Greimas’s helper, but in Propp’s terms the witch is the “donor” and the apple is the “magic gift”, that is the same thing of the “helper”.
So Virgil totally isn’t the helper of Dante in the Comedy (at least in propp’s sense), and anyway Propp’s structure cannot (and should not) be applied to the Comedy, nor to anything that isn’t a folk fairy tale.


oldster 03.30.18 at 2:20 pm

Archytas of Tarentum seems to have written a very brief SF story about walls,

which was then copied up by Lucretius (I.968 et seq.).


Glen Tomkins 03.30.18 at 2:22 pm

You’ve got to go to the loci classici, Homer and the Book of Daniel (by way of Herodotus).

If the objection is made that the Iliad and Odyssey aren’t science fiction, Socrates begs to differ. He tells us at the end of the Republic that poetry, citing Homer in particular, is all about technology, which is exactly the diagnosis that respectable literati make about science fiction.

The Wall central to the Iliad would be the walls of Troy. We don’t get the account in the poem of how those wall were circumvented in the end, by guile and treachery, but that’s the whole point of what the Iliad does tell us, at great length, that the walls were impenetrable. That is the point of the great length, at the end of which the walls are still not penetrated.

The walls of Babylon are similarly impenetrable. Relying on this, the last king of Babylon, Belshazzar, ignores the Persian army besieging his city in order to hold a great feast. He is so far gone in confidence in these walls that he uses one of the vessels stolen from the Temple of Jerusalem as a drinking cup. This results in hallucinating a hand writing on the wall of his feasting chamber, terror of which, plus the intoxication from drinking, occupies him while the Persians get around the impenetrable walls of Babylon by diverting the Euphrates so they can enter the city via its riverbed.

If the objection is made that the Bible isn’t science fiction… Just because the fundies believe that the most serious and respectful way to take the Bible is as some sort of literally true alternate physics, doesn’t make it so.


Layman 03.30.18 at 2:24 pm

I’d say James Blish’s Surface Tension is a story about walls, and breaking through them. I haven’t thought about that story in years, but this post brought it back to me. Thanks for that. Also, I was certain that Surface Tension was included in the Hugo Winners anthology, but I’m wrong about that. I dimly recall another Asimov-edited anthology of earlier science fiction, but I remember the name. All too long ago.


Angiportus Librarysaver 03.30.18 at 2:27 pm

Sometimes the obstacle takes the form of a gap or shortfall rather than a solid wall, and is spanned somehow by something solid or positive. But I can’t quite recall any specific fiction with this imagery. Great article, anyway.


Donald A. Coffin 03.30.18 at 2:33 pm

Theodore Sturgeon has a story–and, of course, I’m blanking on the title–in which there’s a window that is so dense that light moves through it very, very slowly…so that what you see happening outside the window took place decades ago. (Where there are walls, there can be windows).



Theophylact 03.30.18 at 2:57 pm

Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Fredric Brown’s “Arena” (a wall separates a human and an alien who must nevertheless fight to the death). Damon Knight’s Hell’s Pavement (the walls are mainly psychological, but impenetrable nevertheless).


Tim Nolan 03.30.18 at 3:00 pm

A grisly wall: Jonathan Lethem wrote of a prison wall made from the solidified bodies of convicts. One inmate’s cell has a brick with the face of his father.

The story is called ‘The Hardened Criminals’.


Kiwanda 03.30.18 at 3:37 pm

Many of these, and more, are described as The Wall Around the World trope, which might contain a City in a Bottle, not to be confused with a Domed Hometown, but overlapping maybe with a Small, Secluded World, which are sometimes in Pocket Dimensions, which are often places that are Bigger on the Inside.

TV Tropes: click one line and you’re Down the Rabbit Hole.


Dave Maier 03.30.18 at 3:38 pm

Others beat me to a number of these (though I’m still not sure about “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”), but there’s also Kafka’s “Before the Law” (“Vor den Gesetz”) – strictly another door, but it never opens.


Dave Maier 03.30.18 at 3:38 pm

*dem* Gesetz


Mercy 03.30.18 at 3:50 pm

Odd that nobody has mentioned the film of the moment, “Annihilation” which is all about a magical border and a magical door (which possibly have different origins).

A (sort of) non-fictional example: many members of the flat earth conspiracy movement believe that the poles are really gigantic walls of ice surrounding the known continents and separating us from the rest of the (flat) universe.

There’s even a map:


L2P 03.30.18 at 3:56 pm

Cult classic Prince of Darkness uses mirrors as a wall between our world and the evil world of magic.

I think mirrors come up a lot as a wall. Through the Looking Glass, right?


Ben 03.30.18 at 4:01 pm

There’s something about walls as concrete representations of social relations, innit? So much of what’s going on we can’t see. Social processes are opaque. But you can’t miss giant towers in the middle of Dubai, border walls, etc. Going off of Frederic Jameson’s love of Neromancer for providing substantive visual metaphors for capital flows.

– Lots of walls / doors in Kafka. A Little Fable, Before the Law, etc.

– Some walls in Dune: giant stone wall guards the capital city, shields govern most of the technique of battle (of which there’s a fair amount). The end has the messianic boy sorcerer breaching the giant stone wall with atomic weapons and riding huge worms into the capital city under cover of an enormous sandstorm, static electricity sparking everywhere. Find a more badass image of a wall coming down spoiler you can’t

– Not SF but Daniel Plainview’s burning oil derrick is a hell of a tower

– Charlie Stross has a bunch of weird wall / door things. Palimpsest has doors through time, the bad guys “repair the wall of time”, and (one timeline of the) protagonist fights to blow that wall up. Maybe he also builds a giant castle at the end of time as a base? I forget. Accelerando has capitalism 2.0 (post-singularity) build a wall around the economy that ordinary humans can’t breach. Wall eventually manifests as a dyson sphere around the sun, pushing humans out to Jupiter. Also charachters get held in / escape VR sense prisons. All the stories about The Laundry, leaks through the walls of dimensions.

– How about resources space travel requires: fuel, oxygen. The Cold Equations is basically “physics built this wall with one door and it won’t let both of us through”.


Lawrence 03.30.18 at 4:16 pm

An old SF short by Frederick Brown titled Arena has an invisible wall separating a man from an alien. They were put there by a third party to decide the outcome of a war between their two races. The environment is equally hostile to the man and the alien. It is the inspiration for the Trek TOS episode with the same title where Kirk fights a big rubber lizard man. Arena is in the same SF anthology as Microcosmic God, mentioned above.


NickS 03.30.18 at 5:25 pm

I probably should have made clear that my title was a bit of a Wolfe nod!

His short story, “A Solar Labyrinth” is a _perfect_ example of weird walls.


In the Provinces 03.30.18 at 6:31 pm

Damon Knight’s is a novel about a wall in time, rather than space. Very well done book, although rather forgotten today.


Lee A. Arnold 03.30.18 at 8:24 pm

@MisterMr 47

In Snow White, isn’t the queen (or witch) actually Propp’s Villain?

According to Prince’s dictionary, Greimas coined “actant”.


bob mcmanus 03.30.18 at 9:09 pm

57: Great link to an underutilized resource. Following thru “Wall Around the World” I see the TvT is not so complete on SF but the anime examples are terrific: Haibane Renmai, Princess Tutu, Shin Sekai Yori, Yuki Yuna where the walls are not just literal, but carry tons of meta, semiotic, even spiritual implications.

Is a “portal” a teleportation site (SF or F, wardrobes count) or alternate reality interface create a wall? Is a wall? Of course there are whole subgenres of isekai. Is there a “wall” anywhere in say Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, separating the protagonist’s two worlds, or his from ours.

I thought of bringing anime into this, but nobody watches it, it is considered low class compared to that arty print shit, and anytime not spent reading might be better spent running from walls in a fortnite.


bob mcmanus 03.30.18 at 9:12 pm

Ps: Cogswell ain’t that obscure.


Peter in Oz 03.30.18 at 9:17 pm

Late coming back to the party, but I just thought of the second pilot episode of the original Star Trek as another example: ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’ is about the Enterprise crossing a barrier (i.e. wall) at the edge of the galaxy. Crashing through it kills a number of crew and turns one character into a megalomaniac with amazing mental powers.


MisterMr 03.30.18 at 9:55 pm

@ Lee A. Arnold

No, she is an unfriendly donor.

If you read Propp’s second book, he links the first part of the structure of the fairy tale to initiation rituals of hunter gatherers, so you have:

1) young S reaches maturity and is kicked out from her parent’s house (rationalized with the stepmother once these traditions ceased and people didn’t understand what they were speaking about anymore) ;

2) S spends some time in the longhouse, rationalized with the dwarves (faeries) once people couldn’t conceive girls spending time in a house full of boys anymore;

3) S goes to the female shaman and undergoes an initiation ritual of death and rebirth, rationalized as the witch poisoning S

4) After the ritual S marries.

Propp wrote in the Soviet Union and was clearly a dialectic materialist (he often writes against other theorists of fairy tales that they have “burgoise” preconception) and he believed that fairy tales were originally sacred stories that were later distorted and amended when they didn’t correspond anymore to the living conditions, generally changing the rationale for the characters actions.

Specifically, according to Propp the initiation ritual often consisted in getting the power of the totemic animal (like learning to speak with birds) and this was often rationalized with gaining the help of a magic animal, hence the “magic helper”.

This of course is a totally different logic than Greimas, and in particular implies that in Propp’s structure motivations are quite irrelevant,
because it is assumed that we are speaking of an ethnic tale were motivations change for every reteller, since hundreds or thousands of years, not of any story as in Greimas.

Going back to the OP, if fantasy stories ultimately come from initiation rituals, and the ritual consists in a passage in the otherworld, then walls and doors make a lot of sense: the door of Baba Yaga’s house has a very strong symbolical meaning (a teriomorphic house, as in many shamanic traditions).


Robert 03.30.18 at 10:00 pm

Can anybody tell me the author of a short story that goes like so?

There is a starship. But it is a psychological experiment on generation ships.
It is parked in a hanger. A kid on the ship has opened a grate in some nook. He does not tell anybody. He is amused by watching the technicians watching his community.

I understand there’s some tv series now on.


Priest 03.30.18 at 10:16 pm

I know it doesn’t match the genre, but for some reason I thought of “The Cask of Amontillado”, I guess that’s more of a creepy wall than a weird one.


Scott P. 03.30.18 at 10:50 pm

Oh, another good one is the story by Theodore Cogswell, “The Wall Around the World.”


Rabscuttle 03.30.18 at 11:57 pm

Are walls good or bad? There are lots of creepy/ imprisoning /need to get through them to get somewhere else walls. What about walls that protect something and that we don’t want others getting through? Space walls like in Last Starfighter. Legal walls like the Prime Directive in Star Trek (and its many derivatives) that protect them from us. The disease barrier that saves Earth from the Martians in War of the Worlds. Or for that matter the hull of your spaceship that keeps the air here and the vacuum out there.
Lovecraft people seem to think that going through these barriers is a good idea, but I suppose you might argue that they are wrong about that, at least in a practical sense, if not in a making a good story sense.


NomadUK 03.31.18 at 12:09 am

Okay, so, Star Trek has been mentioned, which requires further participation.

‘The Immunity Syndrome’ features the giant space amoeba, which surrounds itself with a ‘wall’ of darkness. Once within this ‘wall’, Enterprise penetrates the outer wall of the creature in an effort to destroy it before it can multiply.

‘The Alternative Factor’ pits two versions of the same individual, Lazarus, who exists in two universes, one antimatter and one matter, who must only be allowed to meet within an extradimensional region that separates the two universes.

One could construe the Romulan Neutral Zone as a ‘wall’, so several episodes qualify: ‘Balance of Terror’, ‘The Enterprise Incident’, ‘Elaan of Troyius’, and ‘The Deadly Years’.

And on a non-Star Trek note, isn’t the Stargate from — well, Stargate a wall?


Lee A. Arnold 03.31.18 at 12:24 am


Who is the villain in Snow White?


Mercy 03.31.18 at 12:46 am

Perhaps scraping the barrel here, but thinking about Tabletop RPGs:

Changeling: The Lost has the mazelike Hedge, which is both the wall between Earth and Arcadia and a magical Otherworld in it’s own right, accessible through any sort of portal (doorway, window, gap in a fence, reflective pool, etc) provided one has the correct spiritual key. Both these concepts crop up repeatedly in TTRPGs, most famously in Planescape’s Sigil, the city of doors, where every archway is a portal to another world if entered holding the right object/memory. Sigil is also The Cage, precisely because it doesn’t have walls or borders (it’s a torus).

Interestingly for all it’s dimension hopping the only wall that shows up in cosmic D&D doesn’t divide anywhere but is instead defined by what it is made up of: the Wall of the Faithless, where the souls of atheists are trapped. Similarly in Kirby’s New Gods series, the Source Wall at the end of the universe doesn’t divide New Genesis from Earth, it’s where the primordial titans are imprisoned.


TON 03.31.18 at 12:49 am

In Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World the town at the end of the word is surrounded by a wall. (maybe without doors if I recall correctly).


John Holbo 03.31.18 at 12:55 am

Thanks for all this. Very useful!


clew 03.31.18 at 2:29 am

Pyramus and Thisbe and their Wall, and what it did for the rude mechanicals.

I like the walls (usually hedges, sometimes walls) and doors (or occasionally mirrors or noises) in Dean’s _The Hidden Country_ &seq.

Cherryh’s _Wave Without a Shore_ walls up some doors of perception. So does _Lud-in-the-Mist_, but in neither case are the walls literal.


clew 03.31.18 at 2:30 am

(Surely William Morris had an astounding wall in one of his novels? At least a tower? But I can’t remember one being important, despite the walled granges and high halls.)


Jonathan Burns 03.31.18 at 2:40 am

Also the Inhumans and the force barrier over their city. Forcefield domes are a dime a dozen in the comics, but this one had real dramatic heft. Created by a madman, only he knew how it worked. Reed couldn’t unlock it, Johnny couldn’t get around it. Could the Inhumans be trapped inside forever? The tension went on for months. It took Black Bolt at full volume to break it down, and that just about levelled the city.


Henry 03.31.18 at 5:13 am

Can anybody tell me the author of a short story that goes like so?

There is a starship. But it is a psychological experiment on generation ships.
It is parked in a hanger. A kid on the ship has opened a grate in some nook. He does not tell anybody. He is amused by watching the technicians watching his community.

Almost certainly, J.G. Ballard, “Thirteen to Centaurus.”


maidhc 03.31.18 at 6:46 am

Surprised that no one has mentioned The Door in the Wall by HG Wells. It’s a template for a certain kind of wall story.

Thanks to Lawrence at 61 for mentioning Arena. I read SF obsessively in my youth but now I frequently forget the title and author. That story is one that really stuck in my mind. I have a vague recollection that it was an episode of The Outer Limits or something like that, but it may be just my recollection of my own visualization of it.

Another story I remember vividly was about this place where time moved more slowly the further north you went. Way up north they were fighting a war with the people who lived the other side of the zero point. It was a war consisting only of projectile weapons since people couldn’t cross the barrier. Up near the battle front a couple of days would be equivalent to 20 years down in the south. Does anyone recognize this?

Another example is Gormenghast. Mervyn Peake spent a fair bit of his childhood in China and would have been familiar with walled cities such as Tianjin, where he lived, and Beijing.

The concept of the dome appears in The Midwich Cuckoos, where the world is outside of the dome, and It’s a Good Life, which is inside the dome.

The idea of doors also appears in Howl’s Moving Castle. (I’ve only seen the movie.) If I couldn’t have a Tardis, I’d like to have a house where every door opens to a different place.

In my childhood I was a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels about Roman Britain, which frequently mentioned Hadrian’s Wall. Not fantasy/SF, I suppose. My wife has similar tastes and we went to Hadrian’s Wall on our honeymoon. Great place to visit. Along with the Great Wall in China it’s a real-world example of the wall concept at its utmost.

There’s another related concept where there’s a place you can peek through to see the other world. I don’t know that this has been used that much in literature. In Gleann Cholm Cille, Co. Donegal, there’s a standing stone with a hole in it. There’s a tradition that certain people could look through the hole and see … Paradise? Faerie? I’m not one of those people, because when I looked through it I just saw what was on the other side.


MisterMr 03.31.18 at 7:24 am

@Lee A. Arnold

There is no villain in Snow white, at least in Propp’s sense: while fairy tales follow the structure, many or most functions are usually dropped, or either never existed. But those functions that do exist are always in the same order.

This is again another difference between Propp and Greimas :

Greimas thinks in terms of an abstract model that can describe any (coherent) story, so you can’t drop the Villain, it’s necessary to the logic of the structure.

But Propp simply took all fairy tales recorded by Afanasev (who differently from the Grimms and others was a scientific folklorist so he didn’t rewrite them but took also the stupid, illogical and perhaps half remembered ones), placed them one on the side of the other and got a series of functions from this comparation, but most tales only have an handful of functions.


MisterMr 03.31.18 at 8:15 am

Again on Propp :

First, Perrault and others started a fashion of writing down and editing popular stories, publishing them as stories for entertainment and therefore rewriting them in good style (I think the first of those collections was from Naples, the “cunto de li cunti” “tale of tales”, there was a movie based on it a pair of years ago, gorey but cool).

Then, with romanticism, intellectuals become fascinated with ancient mysterious tales, and went on a spree recording them (the Grimm brothers), but still published them heavily edited and embellished. This is more or less contemporary with Frazer and the idea that there was an “original mith”.

Later on, after the soviet revolution, Afanasev went to interview all the peasant Russian grannies he could, with the purpose of recording Russian popular culture, but he didn’t edit the tales that therefore are often boring, stupid, illogical or apparently incomplete.

Propp worked on Afanasev ‘s collection, and was critical of previous authors because he believed that, with the editing, they mixed unconsciously their “burgoise” way of thinking in the tales they were supposed to record, thus making a mess. Propp also used a few recordings of Native American tales in his second book.

Thus he came with his comparative table and the famous structure, and later in his second book to an analysis of the “motifs” of fairy tales, that he mostly connected to magic rituals of Hunter gatherers. He was also critical of western theorists who worked on motifs because he thought they had an ahistorical conception, cause they were burgoises.

Later, French structuralists went in search of an abstract structure to which all stories could be referred, at least at a very abstract level, they stumbled on the soviet theorist and used his structure as a base from which they got their much more abstract one. Since there was the cold war, they didn’t read Propp’s subsequent work until much later, when Propp read their work and was quite displeased with Levy Strauss (this is what I was told during my semiotics course at university).

Finally, a crew of creative writing guys got hold of both theories and used them as “how to” manual, although neither Propp’s structure nor Greimas ‘s one are supposed to be recipes for good stories.

On this comes Tolkien’ s criticism, that these structuralists are taking the cool fairy out of the fairy tales, that is based on a complete misunderstanding of what these people were doing (or, to say it with Propp, on the fact that Tolkien was a burgoise thinker, lol).


SusanC 03.31.18 at 9:13 am

I may be misremembering it, but I think in The Overman Culture there’s a wall around the city that the characters think is WWII era London, but the reader knows obviously isn’t. At least it had a force field against the V rockets with nuclear weapons (which is one of the clues that it isn’t set in our past).


SusanC 03.31.18 at 9:23 am

In M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, thete’s a sort-of wall where the laws of physics cease to be good-enough approximations. (In a universe where different civilisations have arrived at different formulations of physics). It’s possibly a one-way wall: it’s referered to in a way that alludes to the event horizon in general relativity.


Mike 03.31.18 at 10:41 am

That’s a lot of interesting titles mentioned!
One interesting ‘wall’ story I re-read recently is Project Barrier, a 1958 story by Dan Galouye. In it, humans have more or less abandoned Earth to the next species to develop intelligence but are so far confining them to a giant walled reserve while they develop at their own pace.
Spoilers here
There are also the moveable walls around entire towns in both Christopher Priest’s Inverted World and Richard Grant’s Through the Heart, another novel featuring a slowly moving town travelling across the counrtyside.

And another 1958 story, this time about a peculiar door, is The Rule of the Door by Lloyd Biggle Jr.


Lee A. Arnold 03.31.18 at 1:31 pm


Which edition of the “morphology of the fairy tale” also contains the (much longer) second book?


Glen Tomkins 03.31.18 at 2:10 pm

I can’t believe I left out Shakespeare in my earlier list of the classic SF/fantasy wall stories! Midsummer Night’s Dream actually has Wall as a character, in the play within a play. The proofs that this character Wall is actually the central figure in the play, and that this is the key to understanding the Meaning of Life, are left as an exercise for the Reader.


Glen Tomkins 03.31.18 at 2:27 pm

J.F. McCullers, @29

I wonder if the magnificence of the walls of the New Jerusalem are not emphasized as a counter to Babylon, whose destruction also gets a whole chapter, 18. It is true that Babylon’s walls are not mentioned, but, as I reviewed briefly @49, Babylon’s walls were famously impregnable, in both the Greek and Judaic traditions. It’s sort of what Babylon is known for.

There are all sorts of other parallels drawn between Babylon and the New Jerusalem, which fits into the overall theme of the book, which is to rather obsessively and in detail parallel the putative forces of Good and those of Evil. This characteristic has made the book a great resource for confessional polemicists down through the ages, as it facilitates branding the opposing confession as the Anti-Christ, no matter how close to your own brand of Christianity its beliefs and practices might be.


Theophylact 03.31.18 at 2:57 pm

Arthur Leo Zagat’s ”The Lanson Screen” (1936). ( I was trying to look this one up yesterday, but couldn’t remember the story’s name and it wasn’t in any Zagat bibliography I could find.)

Sartre’s No Exit; Dante’s Inferno>.


Aardvark Cheeselog 03.31.18 at 3:21 pm

The Gatefather novels by Orson Scott Card start out pretty interesting, if you can bring yourself to read Card. Unfortunately they degenerate eventually into a theological screed.

Somebody mentioned Door into Summer: add Tunnel in the Sky and The Unpleasant Profession of Johnathan Hoag for more from Heinlein. Also By His Bootstraps, and there might be others I’m not thinking of.


Ivo 03.31.18 at 3:42 pm

In the Ghormenghast books, the walls are not so much the actual castle walls as the very restrictive walls of the rituals and culture inside the castle.


JBW 03.31.18 at 7:50 pm

Not exactly recent, I know, but Campanella’s The City of the Sun has some interesting walls — seven concentric circles, painted with encyclopedic murals illustrating all of knowledge. Children learn by wandering around, looking at the walls. Its a fortress, but also a giant book.


MisterMr 03.31.18 at 8:00 pm

@Lee A. Arnold
In italian, this one:

from the low price publisher “Newton Compton”. In english, I have no idea if it’s translated.
I’ll search the original russian name of the book on my italian edition if you want to research it.


MisterMr 03.31.18 at 8:10 pm

@Lee A. Arnold

following my previous comment, french wikipedia gives me this title (both in russian and in french), in case you are interested:

Les Racines historiques du conte merveilleux (Исторические корни волшебных сказок), Leningrad 1946

although the french edition seems old and quite expensive (68€ on amazon), contrary to the cheaper and more recent italian edition.


Theophylact 03.31.18 at 9:23 pm

Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint.


Lee A. Arnold 04.01.18 at 12:59 am

@Mister Mr

Perhaps you can tell me where Propp allows the good/evil polarity to be reversed for the donor. In his 31 plot functions, the donor is good, not evil (although the donor might be deceived).

Propp also writes that his third basic thesis is that the sequence of functions is always identical. But Propp’s donor does not start the story, like the evil queen in Snow White. The donor is a new character who enters in step 11: The hero leaves home, and the donor provides some agent usually magical which “permits the eventual liquidation of misfortune”. I.e. the magical agent is good too, not poison.

I can find chapters of the second book where Propp writes that the elements of his structure may be transformed or substituted, but this pertains to a discussion of retellings and derived forms of the same story. If instead it applies to the choice of good/evil polarities in his basic structure to begin with, then we could construe other interpretations of Snow White.

We could argue that the evil queen is the Hero, her talking mirror is the magical agent, Snow White is the Villain, the poisoned apple is simply a weapon (it isn’t magical) — and we are watching an evil protagonist’s tragedy, a bit like Richard III. And we aren’t told whether the mirror was given to the queen by a Donor. So that’s a good story for someone yet to write. Maybe Cocteau already did: “Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes and goes.” (Orpheus) — Doors!


J.F. McCullers 04.01.18 at 2:05 am

Glen Tomkins, @90

Ah, that’s interesting! So the elaborate recitation of the dimensions and materials would create a mental image of the new Jerusalem strong enough to counter the mental image of Babylon already in the minds of the reader? That makes it more than an incantation—the revelator wasn’t conjuring up the walls using some recipe from ancient mysticism, but more like summoning up the courage of the reader to hold true until it all came to pass.

Walls and doors appear throughout these Bible stories: the walled cities of Babylon, Jerusalem, Jericho, and Tyre, of course, but also the “writing on the wall” in Daniel, Samson bringing down the walls, the walled vineyard parable in Matthew, the rolling stone covering the opening to the crypt.

Walls and doors are regularly called on in these Bible stories as metaphors for strength (and damage to walls as a the result of weakness) but rather less so as metaphors for isolation as is commonplace in modern literature. SF today seems a bit more likely to look at doors as portals or gates, as ways into Gnostic-Matrixy realms of being.

An odd thought: Eden, the place originally intended for all of creation, isn’t described in terms of walls and gates, but in terms of rivers and trees and abundance. It was a garden or forest, and not a citadel. Even after the humans were cast out, the old god didn’t lock up the gates, because there didn’t seem to be any gates to lock. Instead an angel with a flaming sword was set as a guard.


johne 04.01.18 at 3:49 am

There´s the terminator, the dawn-sunset line between the permanent day and night sides of the tidally-locked planet of Roger Zelazny´s “Jack of Shadows,” in which your car will begin to miss, backfire and finally quit altogether if you try to drive from the sunlight into darkness, and your magic spells will grow weaker and finally fail if you are traveling in the opposite direction. If it hasn´t been done already, there is a Ph.D. awaiting whoever convincingly examines boundaries in Zelazny´s work, for example the endless road with its periodic exits, each accessing a different time and place in “Roadmarks,” the gates in “Madwand” and “A Night in the Lonesome October,” and the extradimensional world of his “Amber” potboilers, which is reached through “shadows” (which I seem to recall can include mists, a house of mirrors, a maze, or a bus ride). “Eye of Cat,” as much as it is about anything, is about traversing the psychological distance between modern Native American and Anglo societies.


David Duffy 04.01.18 at 4:38 am

“time moved more slowly the further north you went” Masson’s The Caltraps of Time, I believe, but this reminded me of Christopher Priest’ s Inverted World, where there is a wall of sorts around the city.
Walls of fog often separate different worlds.


MisterMr 04.01.18 at 6:55 am

@Lee A. Arnold

In the “morphology”, chapter 6, ripartition of functions by characters, Propp says that it is possible that the same character has functions of more spheres. He gives this example (I’m translating from italian) :
“In the witch who kidnaps the boy and puts him in the oven, but then is robbed by him (the boy steals her magic handkerchief) there is a coincidence of the function of the villain and the donor (involuntary, hostile) ”
That is the same of Snowwhite (I amend what I wrote before : when the witch is punished at the end of the story she is effectively in the role of the villain).

In the” historical roots”, chapter 4, the big house (that I previously translated as longhouse), Propp specifically speaks of the case of girls who lived for a while in male confraternity houses in historic customs linked to Hunter gatherer initiation institutions, in particular chapter 4, part 10, “the beauty in the coffin”, speaks of girls in Cristal coffins, as is the case of S. The girl lives in the confraternity house for a while but, when she exits and gets married (often because of pregnancy) she has to undergo a temporary death initiation because for normal women the confraternity house is forbidden (with death penalty). This initiation is made with needles, poisoned fruit, or death dresses of sorts.

The “historical roots” is about the history of fairy tale motifs, so we are speaking of retellings of the same story in some sense, but not in the sense of parallel versions but of historical evolution.

I’m lucky that our discussion prompted me to reread the book yesterday and I got to that chapter!


Lee A. Arnold 04.01.18 at 2:27 pm

@Mister Mr

Thanks, that is fascinating stuff. As it happens I am studying Boas’ Kwakiutl Ethnography to make flowchart diagrams of sedentary hunter-gatherers, and they lived in long houses. And I am interested in the sorts of religious stories they told. I found a few chapters of Propp’s “historical roots” excerpted in the following collection of Propp titled, Theory and History of Folklore (U. Minnesota Press 1984). It also contains Levi-Strauss’s critique (as a supplement) and Propp’s reply (as chapter 5). Full PDF:


clew 04.01.18 at 11:05 pm

My other half and I were struck by “hedge funds” and “hedge witches” while reading different books over breakfast, and so read the OED entry for hedge*. Lots of uses! Lots of metaphors! Hedges were a good thing to think with.

This is also an excuse to recommend The Great Hedge of India, even though it isn’t fantasy.


Raven Onthill 04.02.18 at 12:31 am

Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter: the wall of Elfland. Garth Nix, Old Kingdom series (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, Clariel, Goldenhand) the wall of the Old Kingdom. In Yves Menard’s Chrysanthe, an excellent obscurity, the wall bounds a cozy world. Tolkien’s city of Gondor had, I think, seven walls.

The celestial spheres are arguably walls that bound the universe.


Jon 04.02.18 at 4:10 am

Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, and the rest of the Wayward Children series. Don’t be fooled by the tweeness of the title, these are anything but.


GrueBleen 04.02.18 at 4:53 am

Well at least in respect of doors, there’s always the talking doors of Hitchhiker’s Guide:

“Ghastly,” continued Marvin, “it all is. Absolutely ghastly. Just don’t even talk about it. Look at this door,” he said, stepping through it. The irony circuits cut into his voice modulator as he mimicked the style of the sales brochure. “All the doors in this spaceship have a cheerful and sunny disposition. It is their pleasure to open for you, and their satisfaction to close again with the knowledge of a job well done.”

As the door closed behind them it became apparent that it did indeed have a satisfied sigh-like quality to it. “Hummmmmmmyummmmmmm ah!” it said.


maidhc 04.02.18 at 8:18 am

clew : In Ireland there were “hedge schools” and “hedge scholars”. Because education was forbidden to Catholics, these schools had to take place outdoors.

Look at Daniel Corkery, The Hidden Ireland (1924). The hedge schools taught mostly classical learning, so you might find people dressed in rags and living in hovels but reading ancient Greek and Roman authors. I guess you could find similar situations in other places like India or Vietnam but it is interesting.


EWI 04.02.18 at 6:08 pm

SF: Other have mentioned THE EXPANSE before. The main protagonist survived an… infection? by the Proto-Molecule, which allows him on occasion to see beyond the veil of the five human senses and perceive the reality of the interconnected existence of the PM civilisation (something like Neo seeing the reality of The Matrix at the end of the first film).

Fantasy. The ELIDOR series by Garner, Diane Duane’s THE DOOR INTO… series, THE HOUNDS OF THE MORRIGAN by Pat O’Shea, FAERIE TALE by Raymond E. Feist, the WORD & VOID series by Terry Brooks (surprisingly good), of course obviously NARNIA and the THOMAS COVENANT series by Stephen Donaldson all deal with walls between worlds (and associated doors).

Even with all those contenders, Carole Nelson Douglas’s SIX OF SWORDS/SWORD & CIRCLET series (which rapidly improves in quality after the first of five books) is my personal reigning champion in terms of the plot revolving around barriers and passages between worlds. The cover artwork is awful (it’s the WHEEL OF TIME’s Darrel K. Sweet) but don’t let that put you off. Every possible permutation of the trope you’re interested in is catered for here.


Daniel Erickson 04.02.18 at 9:24 pm

Someone above mentioned the strugatsky brothers, but didn’t mention the fascinating novel The Doomed City, with at least six or seven barriers striating space and time and ideology and government.
The television show counterpart just finished off an excellent first season with a constant engagement with the images of walls and borders and how they are sustained or undermined by the passage through them.


MisterMr 04.02.18 at 10:33 pm

@Lee A. Arnold

Thanks for the link!

Propp is in my opinion a very good and very interesting author, I think that it’s a pity that only his functions are known, so I’ll definitely read it!

The chapters translated there are the first and the last of “historical roots”, the other chapters are dedicated to various motifs.

Boas is one of the sources Propp uses for his interpretation, he also uses a lot Frobenius, Frazer and others (even though he disagrees with Frobenius and Frazer’s interpretations).
Previously I said that Propp used ethnographic sources on Native Americans but, rereading it, I realize he in fact used all ethnographic sources he could find.


Royton De'Ath 04.02.18 at 11:01 pm

A few enjoyable possibles:

City and the Stars – Arthur C Clarke
Way Station – Clifford Simak
The Watchtowers – JG Ballard (short story)
Europe in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson

The Lost Room (TV Series – with oodles of doors/walls!)

I’m glad someone mentioned, up-comments, the marvellous “Tract Trilogy” by M John Harrison.

And. Big thanks for these OPs and comments. I’m strolling up, in short order, to my seventies. For as long as I could make sense of stuff, SF, in the form of comics, radio, picture books (as a kid) and even more in adulthood, has given me a lifetime of real pleasure and delight. And. Yay! It’s still there, with new and interesting discoveries, even after taking, sometimes lengthy, breaks!


Royton De'Ath 04.02.18 at 11:23 pm

And. Adam Roberts (long may he Thrive!) Both Stone and On seem to fit the OP bill?


Andrew Miller 04.03.18 at 4:16 pm


Francis 04.04.18 at 2:39 am

I’m a little surprised that neither of these have come up yet:

Dante’s Inferno.
Logan’s Run.


Icastico 04.04.18 at 3:22 am

Remembrance of Earth’s Past: The Three Body Trilogy. By Cixin Liu seems to be a great example. Walls everywhere and on many levels – physical, cultural, and psychological. It is a very odd set of books and requires some serious suspension of disbelief- but in the is quite memorable and thought provoking.


Peter Hovde 04.04.18 at 12:04 pm

“The Door in the Page,” from “The Magician’s Land,” through which Martin Chatwin forces his way back into Fillory, in defiance of its attempts to wall him out. “Fillory needed innocence, as a car needs petrol, and Martin was running out.”


Martin Schafer 04.04.18 at 9:04 pm

I’m really surprised that SPIN by Robert Wilson hasn’t been mentioned yet. A barrier around the Earth where time in the rest of the universe is moving 100 million times slower.

Fantasy rather than SF the Veil from Dragon age RPG. Separating the Fade containing demons, magic, the gods, memories of ancient times and ruins of ancient civilisations from the normal world.


Peeter 04.05.18 at 9:58 am

“The Way Inn” by Will Wiles is set in the eponymous hotel chain where walls and doors can change according to the will of the hotel, or its caretakers, so that you can travel from one Way Inn to another all over the world.


Max 04.05.18 at 1:20 pm

Another nice and neat one by Ted Chiang: Exhalation.

A scientist from a race of mechanical beings describes how he comes to discover the inevitability of his people’s demise and his own mortality. The world is contained by an impenetrable chromium wall – no doors, and no knowledge of what lies beyond.


Kenny Easwaran 04.05.18 at 6:32 pm

I seem to recall a Greg Egan story involving some sort of discontinuity that allows people to move inwards but not outwards, so that everyone in the vicinity clusters in the center until it disappears. It might be “Into Darkness”.


Hidari 04.05.18 at 8:39 pm

David Mitchell, Slade House. Lots of walls which flicker in and out of existence. As seen originally on Twitter.

(apologies if has been mentioned earlier, did a quick ctrl-F for ‘Mitchell’ and didn’t find anything).

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