Sinister Barrier, by Eric Frank Russell

Writing a book about the history and science of invisibility has led me to read things that I would otherwise never have encountered, including a whole slew of science fiction tales about invisibility and invisible creatures. I thought I would blog about a few of them, especially considering not all of them will be commented on in my final book!

The first one I want to share is Sinister Barrier, published in 1943 and written by British author Eric Frank Russell. I read the 1985 edition, shown below.

The “sinister barrier” of the title is the boundary between those frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can see, that we call visible light, and those frequencies beyond, where who knows what may be lurking? (Technically, we can image in all those frequencies in modern times, but in 1943 this was a reasonable premise.)

The story begins in the far future of May 2015. Over the course of only a few weeks, over a dozen prominent scientists end up dead, either by apparent natural causes or by what appears to be suicide. United States government agent Bill Graham is assigned to investigate the deaths, and in the process of looking for answers he finds that all those who had been in contact with the Swedish Professor Peder Bjornsen are either dead, die as he tries to contact them, or in hiding.

At last, Graham gets in contact with Professor Beach, who fills in the details: Bjornsen had discovered a chemical concoction that extends human perception into the far infrared. What he discovered, along with others who followed his instructions and replicated his formula, is that the true masters of Earth are a race of beings that he calls the Vitons. These floating spheres of sentient energy have been controlling and manipulating humanity for what may have been all of recorded history, causing misery, fear and bloodshed and feeding off the energy produced by intense emotions. The Vitons are telepathic and can read minds from a short distance, and they have been ruthlessly killing all those they sense are aware of their presence.

Faced with this monstrous conspiracy, Graham launches a desperate plan with the U.S. government to inform the whole world, spreading the information so fast and so far and wide that the Vitons have no hope of silencing them. But once humanity is aware of the threat, the Vitons turn to warfare to crush the resistance of their “cattle.” Graham and his allies find themselves in a precarious race to find a vulnerability in the Vitons before humanity loses its freedom forever.

The novel is of a style I tend to describe as “how can things get worse?” Every new twist, and new offensive by the Vitons, makes things even more perilous for the heroes. By the climax of the story, Graham has 80 hours to find a solution before a literal apocalypse hits. For me, such a story makes for really fast page-turning, and the novel is a really fast read: I was desperate to know if the human race would escape from beneath the… uh, boots? … of the sinister glowing spheres. The near omnipotence and omniscience of the Vitons adds to the tension of the story.

It’s worth noting that some scenes didn’t age particularly well, not surprising for a novel from the 1940s. In particular, Graham’s attempt to flirt with a woman doctor at her place of work during the middle of an apocalyptic war was a little teeth-gritting!

Other parts of the novel read as remarkably prescient. When the Vitons are revealed to humanity, Graham and others recognize that they can never be sure if various humans have sincere criticisms, or being manipulated by unseen forces:

“From now on, every time a troublemaker shoots his trap, we’ve got to ask ourselves a question of immense significance; who’s talking now?” He put a long, delicate finger on the article under discussion. “Here is the first psychological counterstroke, the first blow of intended unity– the crafty encouragement of suspicion that somewhere lurks a threat of dictatorship. The good old smear technique. Millions fall for it every time. Millions will always fall so long as they would rather believe a lie than doubt the truth.”

I leave it to the reader to imagine how that same quote could apply to many modern political discussions.

One can see both a number of influences on the story and a number of things that Sinister Barrier has influenced in turn. Russell himself acknowledged that his work was influenced by the quirky figure of Charles Fort (1874-1932), who compiled and published supposedly “true” tales of unexplained and anomalous phenomena, such as UFOs, frogs falling from the sky, poltergeists, mysterious disappearances, and other curiosities. His first book on such phenomena, The Book of the Damned (1919), influenced many science fiction authors with its appeal to look beyond accepted science for answers to the unexplained. (It is not clear, in hindsight, that Fort took any of his writings seriously, which were a mixture of fact and fiction.) Fort once speculated that humanity might be the unknowing playthings of a vastly superior race, and this was the clear inspiration for Sinister Barrier.

Cover illustration of the original edition of The Book of the Damned, via Wikipedia.

I also suspect that Russell was influenced by the classic story “The Damned Thing,” written by Ambrose Bierce in 1893. In the story, told from the perspective of several characters, an investigation is ongoing into the mysterious death of a man named Hugh Morgan, who was slain in front of witnesses by an unseen being. At the end of the tale, the diary of Morgan provides an explanation:

“There are sounds that we can not hear. At either end of the scale are notes that stir no chord of that imperfect instrument, the human ear. They are too high or too grave. I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying an entire treetop—the tops of several trees—and all in full song. Suddenly—in a moment—at absolutely the same instant—all spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all see one another—whole treetops intervened. At no point could a leader have been visible to all. There must have been a signal of warning or command, high and shrill above the din, but by me unheard. I have observed, too, the same simultaneous flight when all were silent, among not only blackbirds, but other birds—quail, for example, widely separated by bushes—even on opposite sides of a hill.

“It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between them, will sometimes dive at the same instant—all gone out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded—too grave for the ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck—who nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the organ.

“As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as ‘actinic’ rays. They represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real ‘chromatic scale’ I am not mad; there are colors that we can not see.

“And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!”

We can compare this with the moment that Professor Beech explains the existence of Vitons in Sinister Barrier:

The scale of electro-magnetic vibrations extends over sixty octaves, of which the human eye can see but one. Beyond that sinister barrier of our limitations, outside that poor, ineffective range of vision, bossing every man jack of us from the cradle to the grave, invisibly preying on us as ruthlessly as any parasite, are our malicious, all-powerful lords and masters – the creatures who really own the Earth!

I can imagine that Sinister Barrier has in turn inspired others. John Carpenter’s classic move They Live features aliens that live among us and rule us, hidden from us by alien technology. In Carpenter’s story, one must wear special sunglasses to see the aliens; in Sinister Barrier, one must be treated with a special chemical compound.

None of these observations are intended to be a criticism of Sinister Barrier, or They Live; I just find it fascinating to explore how interesting ideas can be explored differently by different artists!

I should note that a lot of characters die in Sinister Barrier. I mean: a lot. You don’t square off against murderous indestructible psychic spheres without expecting significant casualties. But this adds to the intensity and anxiety of the novel, and it is a really wild ride worth taking.

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