Presumably, I’m off actually catching up on making my notes for my next article.
Since I covered another Russell novel in the last post, here’s another.
Raw Feed (2002): Sinister Barrier, Eric Frank Russell, 1939, 1948?.
“Introduction”, Jack L. Chalker — Brief introduction about Eric Frank Russell, who was one of John W. Campbell’s favorite short story writers before writing, at Campbell’s suggestion, his first novel, Sinister Barrier. It was published in the first issue of the fantasy magazine Campbell started, Unknown. Chalker also talks about Russell’s interest in Charles Fort’s works and the debt this novel owes Fort as well as Russell’s involvement with British Forteans.
Sinister Barrier — After first reading this novel about 15 years ago, and I read it over again because, having recently read the works of Charles Fort, I wanted to spot the full amount of his influence on this novel.
Fort would be proud.
Not only is he explicitly mentioned in the first paragraph, but the novel may be the most Fortean of all sf works. The whole premise is taken from Fort’s remark that “I think we’re property.” Russell mostly uses the metaphor of humanity as cows to serve alien masters, our emotions of violence and anger and agony being milk and meat to them. (And the question as to the origin — extraterrestrials or native to Earth — of the Vitons is never answered. It is suggested at one point that humanity is a cattle species brought by the Vitons to Earth from elsewhere.)
But Russell wraps up a lot more Fortean items in his story: the wonders and miracles of psychics and religious figures may be a Viton disinformation campaign to discredit paranormal observations (sort of the “occult police” idea from Fort’s Lo!); ball lightening is dying Vitons; UFOs are observed Vitons (Russell may have pioneered the idea of alien abduction in this book); odd coincidences of death and odd disappearances; the allegedly superstitious coastal dwellers and sailors are able, because of a diet high in iodine, able to see the Vitons more often; feelings of dread may be Viton tendrils drinking your emotions.
Russell uses other Fortean paraphernalia: the Fortean magazine Doubt is mentioned, and, after the knowledge of the Viton’s existence is widely disseminated, the U.S. government and newspapers look through newspaper files to spot formerly hidden references to Vitons. Russell mentions some things (like spontaneous combustion and psychic powers) that are included in Fort’s works. Other mentions of Fortean knowledge postdate Fort’s death in 1932. I suspect they are real, and Russell used his Fortean Society membership to gain access to them.
I’m curious as to when this novel was revised. Chalker’s introduction just says it was after WWII which is obvious due to references to Hiroshima and the 1947 harbor explosion in Texas City. On the other hand, there are some odd omissions, the main one being no explicit references to the Japanese in WWII though, especially since an Asian Combine fighting the West features them, kamikazes are mentioned. Other signs of post-WWII revision are a reference to Pakistan and UFOS over North Ireland in 1942. An odd bit of prose is a reference to the 1938 disappearance of a ship Anglo-Australian and Professor Beach saying “no solution had been found in ten years” — an odd thing to say for a story set in 2015. (I wonder if it originally had a contemporary setting with the war breaking out between American and some portion of the Axis given an original publication date of 1939.)
Russell’s prose is pulpy, sometimes carrying his metaphors on too far, sometimes it has a melodramatic vigor like the first line from Chapter 1: “’Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking,’ mused Professor Peder Bjornsen.”
The plot is roughly similar to Russell’s other Fortean novel, Dreadful Sanctuary. Both start out with a string off odd, seemingly coincidental events. Here it’s the seemingly natural deaths of several prominent scientists. In Dreadful Sanctuary, it was the destruction of several spaceships bound for Venus. In both cases, the protagonist uncovers a vast conspiracy of possibly extraterrestrial origin (though in the revision of Dreadful Sanctuary the Martians are really an Earth cult and here the Vitons may be native to Earth). In both, the protagonists meets a babe related to a dead scientist. This novel is much more involving and epic with America embroiled in a war with the Asian Combine while simultaneously trying to defeat the Vitons and a deadline counted down in hours (though Dreadful Sanctuary with its rocket launch, also has that).
This novel ends happily with the old problem of man’s violent emotions solved (now that we’re no longer provoked by aliens we can all live in rational harmony — indeed the Asians are not subjected to vengeance but education). Like Dreadful Sanctuary, this novel also seems to make reference to the quack theories of Albert Abrams with its reference to “shortwave therapy”.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.