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Zone

Entry updated 17 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.

Within the fictional worlds of sf stories or novels, whenever a space of some unusual properties is found, it can be defined as the zone. A zone's most characteristic feature is the way it differs from and interacts with the world around it. Sf most frequently depicts realities dissimilar to or even distant from that of readers' empirical experience, but no matter how surprising they seem, they are customarily based on a set of irrefutable yet decodable rules to be concretized in the course of reading; new rules may be discovered, but Conceptual Breakthroughs tend to change the whole of the reality occupied. The zone on the other hand influences, undermines or even twists reality within its territory or grasp, imposing new meaning onto the ontology of the fictional world within the larger territory of the depicted universe. Its manifestations can take various forms as an intervention that disturbs its world, resolves some problems and/or causes others, sometimes to an unpredictable outcome, a find that slightly or radically alters its parameters; even more intricately, it may define a rural or urban space whose complexity challenges the complexity of the space it occupies.

The zone has been derived from Michel Foucault's concept of heterotopia and a chapter of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) by Brian McHale and defined in his Postmodernist Fiction (1987) (see Postmodernism and SF) as a space within a fictional world that demonstrates a certain incongruity; where the possible and the impossible are juxtaposed and clash for the sake of exploring ontological possibilities, as for example in Italo Calvino's Le cittá invisibili (1972; trans William Weaver as Invisible Cities 1974) or the above-mentioned Pynchon novel, part three of which, entitled "In the Zone", comprises the 335-page heart of the book. In sf, however, a certain "impossibility" of the fictional world is frequently the starting point of the whole reading experience, and within this impossibility a peculiarity appears or is discovered, whose influence on an individual or the entire world is considerable and consequential. Therefore, it could be said that, theoretically, the zone monopolizes the twilight space between a psychogeography and Pocket Universe and its emergence as a recursive science-fictional theme can be linked, although certainly not exclusively, to the New Wave, where sf writers did not hesitate to employ many literary strategies characteristic of modernism (see Modernism in SF) and postmodernism. In Thomas M Disch's early story "Descending" (July 1964 Fantastic), for instance, a shopper in a department store finds himself trapped on what seems to be an endless down escalator, descending into a space that apparently has not been there before or remained hidden. This unexpected discovery seems to have dire consequences as he becomes permanently trapped in what could be defined as an effective amalgamation of the existential powerlessness of Franz Kafka's characters and the impossibility of M C Escher's architectural structures. A similar, although hardly science-fictional, premise serves as the foundation for Robert Coover's early story "The Elevator" (1967 [magazine not traced]; in Pricksongs & Descants, coll 1969), whose main character regularly uses a self-service lift which after a time becomes his own fictional microcosm, where people are born, live and die. Interestingly, an early manifestation of the zone preceding both postmodernism and New Wave can be recognized in "El Aleph" (May 1945 Sur; coll 1949; rev 1952), one of the most popular stories by Jorge Luis Borges to a degree rooted both in Gothic literature (see also Gothic SF) and modernist Fantastika, where in the course of events a cellar under the dining room of an old Buenos Aires house is revealed concealing a point in space which contains the entire universe and all its places to be seen all at once by someone who gazes into it at the correct angle.

Perhaps the most famous and spectacular depiction of the zone in science fiction of the New Wave period can be found in Piknik na obochine (1972; trans Antonina W Bouis as Roadside Picnic in coll 1977) by Arkady and Boris Strugatski. Set in the Near Future it offers three distinct narrative perspectives on an irruption into this world that may be the remains of an unexplainable and perhaps essentially accidental Alien interference. The remains create zones, spreading spaces over the globe whose numerous extraordinary substances and artefacts undermine human understanding of physics by demonstrating various extraordinary properties. The zones along with their contents are scrutinized by scientists but also secretly and illegally explored by stalkers, professional scavengers willing to risk their lives in order to get something of value. Another Strugatski novel utilizing the theme is Grad obrechennyi (written 1972; 1989; trans Andrew Bromfield as The Doomed City 2017), which concentrates on the lives of people from various places and times who volunteer to take part in a sociological experiment carried out in a mysterious City of constantly calibrated social parameters, whose fragile political balance breaks down, bringing on a dictatorship, and where the possible and the impossible clash and blend.

Further sf zones of varying strangeness include the toxic patch of the universal aether through which Earth passes in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt (March-July 1913 Strand; 1913); the Intelligence-inhibiting spatial field from which Earth emerges in Poul Anderson's Brain Wave (September 1953 Space Science Fiction as "The Escape", first instalment only before magazine ceased publication; 1954); the bizarre and deadly Labyrinth on the Moon in Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon (1960; vt The Death Machine 2001); the "Twisted World" where causality surreally breaks down in Robert Sheckley's Mindswap (1966); the "Pen" region within which the laws of Physics go slightly but troublingly awry in Colin Kapp's "The Pen and the Dark" (in New Writings in SF 8, anth 1966, ed John Carnell); the semi-allegorical gardens of Peter Tate's Gardens 12345 (1971; vt Gardens One to Five 1971); the galactic "Beyond" in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), where our familiar "Slow Zone" limitations – including Relativity – no longer apply; and the vast, incomprehensible region of deep space known as the Kefahuchi Tract in M John Harrison's Light (2002) and its sequels. It is doubtful that the World Ship/Macrostructure featured in Rendezvous with Rama (1973; minor revs 2020) by Arthur C Clarke, and the alien Asteroid spaceport from Fredrik Pohl's Gateway (November 1976-March 1977 Galaxy; 1977) can be satisfactorily interpreted as zones, but both are permeated by the ambience of a zone's peculiarity, while their impact on their human discoverers and their understanding of the universe is groundbreaking. No such doubts should be raised in case of the City of Bellona in Samuel R Delany's monumental Dhalgren (1975), where geography and Time seem to be disturbed while the lack of any boundaries characteristic of human societies has a powerful influence on an individual encouraging a specific self-defining Inner Space exploration.

It would not be unjustified to point to the zone as a constitutional component of Robert P Holdstock's fiction: in Where Time Winds Blow (1981) he comes up with an alien world haunted by random Time Distortions undefinable by human logic, apparently the only such phenomenon in the universe known to human explorers, while in his most famous novel, Mythago Wood (September 1981 F&SF; exp 1984), the first book of the Mythago Cycle, which can be analysed both as Fantasy and as sf, he presents an area of woodland in the heart of English countryside capable of physically creating mythological characters, a power which can be loosely compared to that of the ocean-planet's from Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961 Poland; trans Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox [from French trans] 1970; trans Bill Johnston [from Polish] completed 2011, published as an ebook 2014), where human memories and suppressed emotions are used as the material for the creation of physical entities identical to those remembered by humans examining the planet, which is the only way the sentient ocean is able to communicate with its visitors.

Within the intersection of science fiction and postmodernism, on the frontier of Equipoisal Fantastika, the most notable novel other than the paradigmatic Gravity's Rainbow – although perversely emphasizing its non-sf character – is perhaps Alasdair Gray's Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981; exp 2001 4vols), whose Chapter 33 is entitled "A Zone" and features an "intercalendrical" region of Time Distortion; Brian McHale considers its paradoxical nature to be modelled on the worlds of the Alice books by Lewis Carroll.

The zone's transition from physical to virtual space can be observed in some Cyberpunk works, particularly in William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy, comprising Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), where within the Virtual Reality matrix that provides an aesthetically alluring, blissful and almost addictive bodiless experience, human affairs are widely run by evolved AIs. Similarly to the zones in Strugatski's novel, Gibson's matrix can in theory be entered by anybody who uses specialized equipment called the deck, but in reality it remains the domain of Cyberspace cowboys, stalker-like, risk-taking hackers living as much for the bodiless ecstasies as for stealing or manipulating data.

One of the most fascinating incarnations of the zone can be found in Kathleen Ann Goonan's debut novel and the first instalment of her Nanotech Cycle, Queen City Jazz (1994), which is set in a world almost entirely transformed by Nanotechnology, an out-of-control technological breakthrough, which has decimated human populations and converted cities into dreamlike enlivened structures. Verity, its heroine, decides to hit the road for Cincinnati, a nanotech metropolis which is in fact an intertextual zone, a space combining reality and fiction, populated by brought-to-life literary characters and whole fragments of narratives, in order to try to save her accidentally-shot best friend. Verity herself is an intertextual character, a jazz-like variation of Dorothy on her way to the Emerald City of L Frank Baum's Oz and Gerda from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" (1846).

More recently an elaborate usage of the theme can be found in Jeff VanderMeer's Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy sequence – Annihilation (2014), Authority (2014) and Acceptance (2014) – showing that, when used creatively, the zone can still be a truly potent science-fictional theme. [KW]

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