Eric Frank Russell’s 1939 Sinister Barrier is a standalone Fortean novel.
2015! The distant future! Bill Graham, a liaison officer handling relations between scientists and the U.S. Department of Special Finance, is alarmed at a recent wave of deaths amongst America’s top geniuses. Some died of what seems to be natural causes, others by suicide. Graham is convinced someone is murdering the USA’s brain trust.
Graham is on the right track but he does not grasp the scale of the crisis. The culprit isn’t the Soviets, the Asian Combine, or even some sort of sinister world-spanning conspiracy like Hydra, Thrush, Spectre, or the Phone Company, but something far more ominous. The target is not merely the United States of America. It is humanity as a whole.
Scientists across the world are dying. The common link turns out to be having communicated with the late Professor Bjornson. His efforts to share a startling discovery have doomed his colleagues. Professor Bjornsen developed a method to extend the range of human sight. To his surprise he discovered heretofore invisible metre-wide balls of energy lurking amongst humans.
These “Vitons,” as Bjornsen dubbed them, live near concentrations of humans for much the same reason humans can be found near cows and sheep. They feed off our emotional energies. Human history has been a long record of Vitons shaping human behavior to suit their needs. Irrational behavior, war, and prejudice persist because Vitons intervene to make it so, the better to feed off us.
Unfortunately for Bjornsen, Vitons can read minds1. It would not do for humans to understand that they are domesticated animals. Thus, people who know too much or who make the mistake of thinking the wrong thoughts in front of a Viton suffer heart attacks or fatal madness. In the case of Silver City, a whole city suffers a metropolis-leveling industrial accident.
Graham and everyone involved in the investigation are walking dead, alive only for so long as it takes the Vitons to notice them.
Desperate to buy enough time to discover some means of killing our invisible masters, Graham and his colleagues exploit the one Viton weakness of which they are aware: Vitons are limited in number and cannot be everywhere. Vitons can deal with the odd reporter who learns about them. They cannot prevent a mass media push that reveals their existence to newspaper readers and radio audiences across the nation!
Which, of course, is when the Viton-maddened Asian Combine launches all-out war on America.
You might expect the Asian Combine to be some sort of Buck Rogers/Heinlein Asian horde. For all I know, that’s what they were in the 1939 version. The novel I read is the revised 1948 Fantasy Press edition (which is probably the one you read, if you read it at all, which I doubt). In the 1948 version, the Asian Combine is “normally slumbersome” – a whole different set of Asian stereotypes – and the hordes of fanatically deranged warriors swarming across California come as an unpleasant surprise.
Subject to malicious mental manipulation like almost all humans, Asians can’t be blamed for the war. Which, if you think about it, could mean that nobody is to be blamed for anything. Hitler? Viton-maddened. The punk who just robbed you? Viton-urged. The novel does lightly touch on the issue of not being sure which thoughts are one’s own, but doesn’t go into the philosophical and moral issues in any great depth. Not that one could expect that of a 1939 pulp novel.
There’s even an argument to be made that Vitons might have done good things for humans. Had the Vitons not spent millennia crowding humans into cities and tampering with our cultures, we might still be arguing over whether to adopt Pointed Stick 2.0. Not that the novel goes into that either.
The book can be divided nicely into two sections. The first is a tale of paranoia and fear, as Graham discovers that we’re property and that the Vitons ruthlessly prevent humans from spreading news of them. The second is an energetic gadget-focused war story that kicks off when the Combine attacks. The first was interesting. The second, for all the constant action, was rather boring.
The essential Fortean concept, humans as unwitting cattle, is an interesting concept. I’d like to see it revisited by someone who doesn’t face the same market constraints that EFR did.
Sinister Barrier is available as part of NESFA Press’ Entities omnibus.
1: But lacking eyes as we understand them, Vitons cannot read. Which means if you think the wrong thought in the presence of a Viton, you are dead meat, but that note you hastily jotted down before dying will be left alone.