Friday, February 19, 2010

Sinister Barrier

The subcategory of psychic vampires—creatures that live on energy rather than blood—includes a fascinating variety of novels and stories, including the now almost forgotten (except by SF scholars) pulp-era novel SINISTER BARRIER (1939), by Eric Frank Russell. Although it seems to be out of print, has lots of inexpensive used copies for sale. In this book human ingenuity scores a decisive victory over the alien psychic predators, which are irredeemably hostile. The novel begins with an outbreak of mysterious deaths and suicides among scientists, who leave cryptic messages suggestive of madness. Gradually the truth comes to light: Throughout the existence of Homo sapiens, humanity has been ruled and preyed upon by "luminescent spheres, about three feet in diameter, their surfaces alive, glowing, blue, but totally devoid of observable features.” These entities, "neither animal, mineral nor vegetable" but pure energy, given the name "Vitons," feed on violent emotions as well as certain kinds of electromagnetic energy. They use extrasensory perception and telepathy in lieu of material senses and modes of communication. Investigation uncovers a combination of drugs that allows ordinary people, not only those with paranormal perception, to see the Vitons. Revealed to the world, the Vitons strike back by provoking global disasters and warfare. Finally an electromagnetic wavelength capable of destroying them is discovered, and humanity annihilates its former masters.

The Vitons have no individual personalities, at least, none that human beings can perceive. One character in SINISTER BARRIER describes these predators as "so utterly and completely alien that I cannot see how it will ever be possible for us to find a common basis that will permit some sort of understanding.” The emergence of humanity from its ignorant status as prey into clear-sighted knowledge constitutes the theme of the novel. Here understanding is not the key to interspecies cooperation as in many later vampire novels; instead, understanding is the key to conquest and annihilation. Graham, Russell's protagonist, declares, "Ignorance may be bliss—but knowledge is a weapon,” and later he proclaims the need to "counterbalance the Vitons' enormous advantage in having an ages-old understanding of human beings, and gain an equally good comprehension of them. Know thine enemy!"

The imagery of the novel dehumanizes both humanity and the superhuman predators. Graham and his fellow investigators in the novel discover that the Vitons, whether invaders from another planet, creatures co-evolved with Homo sapiens, or possibly "true Terrestrials, while we are the descendants of animals which they've imported from other worlds in cosmic cattle-boats,” deliberately breed human beings for the emotional energy upon which the predators feed. The novel begins with a pair of metaphorical warnings: "Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking," and, "there's a swat waiting for the first bee that blats about pilfered honey.”

Other subhuman imagery includes a reference to a mental patient as "mutilated trash tossed aside by super-vivisectionists"; a contrast between the Vitons as "Lords of Terra" and "we, the sheep of their fields," kept under "their mastery as cold-bloodedly as we maintain ours over the animal world—by shooting the opposition"; the suggestion that the Vitons perform "super-surgery on their cosmic cattle" for the same motives that lead some people to "teach seals to juggle with balls, teach parrots to curse, monkeys to smoke cigarettes and ride bicycles" and medical students to "make stray cats disappear" and snatch "frogs that are later dissected"; and the characterization of a victim about to be drained as "a homoburger waiting the bite.” All terrestrial conflicts throughout history have been "grist for the Viton mill...unwitting feeders of other, unimaginable guts.” The human gene pool has been manipulated just as we shape crops such as potatoes; human beings are "emotional tubers...grown, stimulated, bred according to the ideas of those who do the surreptitious cultivating.”

This novel thus places the blame for the horrors of human history on an outside force. One character warns his hearers, "Humanity will never know peace, never build a heaven upon earth while its collective soul bears this hideous burden, its collective mind is corrupted from birth.” Oddly, this theme ultimately leads to optimism instead of despair. Once freed from the tyranny of the psychic vampires, Homo sapiens is restored to the condition of freedom and self-determination that our species should have enjoyed all along. "We can emote for ourselves now, and not for others," Graham declares at the conclusion, for "in the truest sense we're now alone.” The text implies that in the absence of the Vitons, most human conflicts will cease, and our species will indeed "build a heaven upon earth.” Only the elimination of the corrupting outside force is required to initiate a terrestrial golden age.

This tale of rampant paranoia and chilling cosmic horror is well worth a look for all fans of Golden Age SF.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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