A somewhat recurring setting in science-fiction is of "unphysical intrusions". Realms, usually spherical, which intrude upon human society, within which commonly-held laws of physics and causality do not apply.

I've always assumed it to be the unique invention of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in Roadside Picnic (1971). I also assumed that Darker than Black was inspired by "Roadside Picnic". Though not having read Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, this description got me to wondering about the history of such "unphysical intrusions".


I'm interested in the development of this literary device as well as any possible relation between the three works mentioned (this will be another question).

edit v2:

After the artfully insidious answer by sjl I have to amend my requirements of "unphysical intrusions" to utterly incomprehensible areas on Earth. That is, unphysical rather than nonphysical because rather than a different set of physical laws, there are simply no laws, or at least none that can ever be understood. And I mean completely and forever beyond human understanding.

At least until someone provides yet another example that doesn't belong while inexplicably turning the question on its head...


2 Answers 2


Edwin Abbott's Flatland (1884) might work. The protagonist, A. Square, who is a square living in a two-dimensional universe, is visited by a sphere (named A. Sphere) from a three-dimensional world. A. Sphere lifts A. Square out of his two-dimensional existence and allows him to see Flatland from above.

So, I don't know if this is an exact match. We have

  • an intrusion
    • that's spherical
  • from another dimension
    • with different physical laws.

However, we don't have

  • alien artifacts
  • areas where things are now different.
  • 1
    Heh, that's a creative and legit interpretation of the requirements as stated. I consider them a literary device/foil for exploring human preconceptions/conditions/society and not mathematical problems. Usually involving a mixed sense of dread and wonder. I still can't get over how well Flatland fits even after these clarifications.
    – user19087
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 2:48
  • I think the main difference is that there is no "guide" character, nor any possibility of comprehending the nature of such realms. And unlike works by Stanislaw Lem (i.e. Invincible) we're still on earth so the topic is not human perception but society as a whole. And unlike Monsters, it is a contained but un-adaptable setting (Flatland violates this to some extent).
    – user19087
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 2:55
  • Yeah, even though Flatland matches the original spec, it doesn't feel quite right. And you're right, A. Sphere probably makes the difference, by making it an alien contact story rather than a variety of alien artifact story. However, although Flatland remembered today for geometry and conceptual breakthrough, much of the book is social satire about Victorian Britain.
    – sjl
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 2:37

Is it O.K. if the lawless area is the whole earth? I'm thinking of Jack Vance's short story "The Men Return", first published in Infinity Science Fiction, July 1957, available at the Internet Archive.

Far away rose low hills, blurring into the sky, which was mottled and sallow like poor milk-glass. The intervening plain spread like rotten velvet, black-green and wrinkled, streaked with ocher and rust. A fountain of liquid rock jetted high in the air, branched out into black coral. In the middle distance a family of gray objects evolved with a sense of purposeful destiny: spheres melted into pyramids, became domes, tufts of white spires, sky-piercing poles; then, as a final tour de force, tesseracts.

The Relict cared nothing for this; he needed food: out on the plain were plants. They would suffice in lieu of anything better. They grew on the ground, or sometimes on a floating lump of water, or to a core of hard black gas. There were dank black flaps of leaf, clumps of haggard thorn, pale green bulbs, stalks with leaves and contorted flowers. There were no definite growths or species, and the Relict had no means of knowing if the leaves and tendrils he had eaten yesterday would poison him today.

[. . . .]

Matters had not always been so. The Relict retained a few tattered recollections of the old days, before system and logic had been rendered obsolete. Man had dominated Earth by virtue of a single assumption: that an effect could be traced to a cause, itself the effect of a previous cause.

[. . . .]

Then came the terrible hour when Earth swam into a pocket of non-causality, and all the ordered tensions of cause-effect dissolved.
The special tool was useless; it had no purchase on reality. From the two billions of men, only a few survived—the mad. They were now the Organisms, lords of the era, their discords so exactly equivalent to the vagaries of the land as to constitute a peculiar wild wisdom. Or perhaps the disorganized matter of the world, loose from the old organization, was peculiarly sensitive to psycho-kinesis.

A handful of others, the Relicts, managed to exist, but only through a delicate set of circumstances. They were the ones most strongly charged with the old causal dynamic. It persisted sufficiently to control the metabolism of their bodies, but could extend no further. They were fast, fast dying, for sanity provided no leverage against the environment. Sometimes their own minds sputtered and jangled, and they would go raving and leaping out across the plain.

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