Sinister Barrier Essay - Critical Essays

Eric Frank Russell


Eric Frank Russell was a British author who published primarily in U.S. pulp magazines. He developed a breezy, slangy American style that has not worn well. Sinister Barrier was his first novel, published in the premier issue of Unknown, and it is the one for which he is best known. He updated the text for its second book publication in 1948, but his world of 2015 is still one in which vacuum tubes and switchboards co-exist with gyrocars and pneumatic levitators; aggression by the Asian Combine simply echoes World War II.

Russell was a founder and lifelong member of the British Fortean organization. He was fascinated by the ideas of Charles Fort, an American collector of reports of strange phenomena that science could not explain. Fort formulated striking, thought-provoking theses, the most familiar being the notion that “humans are property”—the guiding concept of Sinister Barrier. Many pages of the novel record lists of suggestive “Fortean phenomena” culled from 1938 newspapers (the year of composition).

The concept of parasitical beings is a familiar theme in science fiction as well as in horror fiction (vampirism). The parasites may lay eggs in human hosts, drink human blood, or drain vital energies; they may attach themselves physically or live in the mind. Sinister Barrier is one of the classic examples of use of this concept in science fiction. Others include Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951), Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Space Vampires (1976), and Ridley Scott’s film Alien (1979).

Although the Vitons are parasites, it is by no means clear that they are actually extraterrestrial invaders like the Martians in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). One of the hypotheses advanced in Russell’s story is that the Vitons are actually the original inhabitants of Earth and that humans were simply imported by them from other worlds to serve as their cattle. The origin of the Vitons is never revealed. The Vitons are certainly alien (foreign) according to human norms, and their parasitism clearly is a form of invasion.

The primary focus of Sinister Barrier is not the philosophical or historical implications of parasitism, except incidentally. The novel is, first and foremost, an action-suspense thriller built on humanity’s race to defeat mind-reading parasites in time. Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites presents a more philosophical treatment of the same theme.