Liminal fiction is a personal genre I’ve created that is a synthesis of various literary and thematic elements of genre fiction as a whole. It combines aspects of alternate history, mirror worlds, surrealism, sehnsucht and contemporary slice of life into a single, coherent narrative format. It is born out of decades of my own experiences with creative media – including books, television, video games, music and even works of visual art.
Liminal fiction settings are those that feel eerily similar to our own, but despite having fundamental differences to our world, these alternate realities still retain a strong sense of familiarity and realism that make us eagerly want to live in them. Liminal fiction exists at the threshold of the familiar and the unfamiliar and is best executed in narrative concepts that are mostly plausible and realistic – all in spite of their surreal improbability.
My favorite manifestation of liminality in fiction is best exemplified in anthro media – where contemporary worlds are often explored through the personal, colorful perspectives of bestial characters that are deeply intimate and even wholesome at times. Despite the dramatic or even inconceivable improbability of a mirror world inhabited by anthros instead of humans, it is nonetheless possible in the infinite expanse of the multiverse. This is where liminality lives.
Another way to look at liminal fiction is to think about aesthetic or thematic tropes in genre media. For anyone that has watched their fair share of sitcoms or dramas – particularly from the nineties and noughties, they should be quite familiar with the trope of cities that are everywhere but nowhere at the same time. A particular show might allude to taking place in a specific region – especially somewhere in the United States, but the writers often don’t specify the exact location in the series. These are often classified as fictionalized settings. If you take such a fictionalized setting and introduce the improbable – like different flora or fauna, cultures or histories, while still maintaining the eerie and almost generic familiarity of that fictionalization, you have a liminal fiction setting.
My use of liminal in the term liminal fiction is, at least in part, inspired by the exploration of the concept that has more recently been defined in modern and especially underground media – if not internet culture in particular. For some years now, people have been describing the familiarity of the unfamiliar through abandoned or empty places that have a sense of the surreal. Though they can certainly be unsettling, there is often a sense of nostalgia, yearning or sehnsucht that accompanies these liminal experiences – a strong desire to be in these spaces in spite of how hard they can be to properly define.
Though it is unsurprising that these surreal experiences are often associated with nostalgic memes or music genres like vaporwave and the like, liminality has been described as a concept long before its use in internet culture. In an anthropological sense, liminality is often used to describe social, cultural or spiritual transitions – often rites of passage in various contexts. In modern culture, a lot of these rites of passage feel divorced from our lives – especially for a lot of young people, so it makes sense that liminality would evoke such a strong response.
The spiritual aspect of liminality in particular is the strongest association that I have drawn from it – as one who has been a practicing polytheist for a long time. This spiritual aspect is also what underlies some of the most ethereal and contemplative dimensions of liminal fiction for me. Though there are certainly more unsettling aspects of liminality that can be explored, it is the whimsical, symbolic and romantic elements that come through the strongest for me. Liminal fiction and liminality in general is meant to remind us that there is magic in the mundane.
In liminal fiction, you don’t need elaborate, physics breaking magic or outlandish technologies to produce inviting, whimsical worlds to explore. Liminal fiction is meant to demonstrate that the highest escapism you can actually have as a reader is not in pure realism or pure fantasy – but in the plausible yet improbable threshold between them. You could have a mirror world inhabited by furry characters that still manages to have eerily similar contemporary businesses to those in our world. In another one, you could find yourself transported to a place where, instead of unrealistic fantasy dragons, massive, prehistoric monitor lizards survived into the present day – to be hunted or tamed.
Though a liminal fiction setting could take place in the past or future, the focus of liminal fiction is to produce a sense of familiar unfamiliarity. Regardless of chronological alignment, if the setting manages to convey a sense of the contemporary with a touch of the improbable, it is successful as liminal fiction. Conversely, focusing on one’s experience of this threshold is also why excessive social or political commentary is incompatible with liminal fiction. While focusing too much on the unfamiliarity of the past or future is problematic, so is focusing too much on the familiarity of current events. Both extremes ruin the emersion and escapism that is essential to liminal fiction.
To summarize, liminal fiction is a genre grounded in plausible realism with a touch of the improbable. Liminal fiction settings mostly take place in fictionalized, contemporary, and often wholesome slice of life settings – with eerily similar histories yet improbable changes to that reality that produce appealing escapism for the reader. Liminal fiction settings emphasize the magic of the mundane and the familiarity of the unfamiliar through relatable characters and situations – without the use of fantastical elements that often define much of the speculative fiction genre. Successful liminal fiction should create a sense of nostalgia, yearning or sehnsucht and focus on optimistic and intimate themes whenever possible.