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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Rhys Vaughan


Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking.”

These are the chilling opening words of Eric Frank Russell’s masterpiece of war with invisible aliens – “Sinister Barrier” (1939). Russell was a follower of the eccentric Charles Fort (1874-1932) who devoted his life to cataloguing phenomena that modern science could not explain, such mysterious disappearances, unknown things in the sky, ball lightning, falls of fish—to name a few. Fort’s explanation for these events was that Homo sapiens is not the ruler of the world, but a subject of a higher power that has control over nature—and humanity. His summing up of the human condition was “We are property.”

Russell takes this idea (and along the way solves the Fermi Paradox, which had yet to be formulated) and tells a compelling story of the discovery of the true nature of the world.

His hero is Bill Graham who is investigating the deaths of scientists who were working for his department. All the scientists have died recently, either by apparent heart attacks or by apparent suicide. Autopsies reveal that they had all ingested a combination of mescal, iodine and methylene blue. Eventually Graham discovers a reclusive scientist who has avoided death and learns the truth. The combination of chemicals extends human vision into the infra-red and makes the true rulers of Earth visible—the Vitons.

They are featureless spheres of a pale blue luminosity about a metre across. They have limited extrasensory capabilities which means they know when people have become aware of their existence—and promptly kill them, by inducing suicide or heart attacks. Their normal mode of behaviour is to feed off human emotions—the stronger, the better. Hence, they constantly stir up war, and violence in general, in the human population so that they can feed. It is unknown if they are the original inhabitants of our planet or are extra-terrestrial, although the evidence favours the latter.

The Vitons become aware of the growing number of humans who know of their existence and foment war through the world, including the use of atomic bombs (in the revised version of 1948). Eventually Graham finds a message from a scientist who was killed for his knowledge: a picture of a bear. He later realises it was a POLAR bear and understands the scientist was advocating the use of polarised electromagnetic radiation against the Vitons. This is successful and humanity is free from their Viton overlords, who had been farming them for millennia.

Graham then realises this is why Earth had not been visited by races from other other stars: the Vitons had declared their farm off-limits.

Enrico Fermi did not devise his paradox until 1950, some years after the final version of “Sinister Barrier” had been published.

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