Monday, 7 November 2011

Review: Sinister Barrier

Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell (1939)

Hunting for books is an adventure.  Even in a digital age, running down a volume that you know by name or reputations, but have never laid hands on can be as exhilarating as stalking a buck and the kill as satisfying.  And you don't have to lug the carcass back to the lodge through two miles of undergrowth.  Unfortunately, sometimes finding that book proves more fun than actually turning the pages.

Such is the case with Sinister Barrier.  Like a lot of science fiction, it is famous for its premise to the point where its appalling execution is entirely overlooked.

First published in the short-lived strange fiction magazine Unknown, Sinister Barrier is the first sample of "Fortean" science fiction.  Charles Fort, a newspaper reporter and frustrated naturalist, was an obsessive collector of press clippings involving all manner of weird happenings all over the world.  Starting in 1919, he gathered these stories into four books that were part reporting, part speculation and mainly rambling stream of conciousness where Fort dabbled with and then rejected and then re-dabbled with all manner of bizarre ideas about what is "really" going on.   His books had a great influence on later science fiction writers, but it was Eric Frank Russell who first picked up on using Fort as a springboard.

Sinister Barrier starts out as it intends (or doesn't intend, but does so anyway) to continue by on the first page claiming to be fiction, but true.  Then there's a long disquisition on Fort that ends with a ludicrous "true story" opening that is left hanging in the air.  After this, the story proper starts with the mysterious deaths of scientists and police detective Bill Graham hot on the trail.  In a string of harrowing chases, Graham discovers that man is not alone on the Earth.  In fact, he is someone else's property and that anyone who discovers this truth is immediately killed.  Except for Graham, who has ESP or the aliens can't identify him or he's just lucky or whatever suits the plot at the moment.

That is the major failing of Sinister Barrier.  It's a haphazard novel that doesn't know what it wants to be.  It's supposedly wrapped up as a detective thriller, but it keeps shifting gears from scene to scene for no readily apparent reason.   Take our hero, for example.  One minute he's a standard issue flatfoot on the homicide beat, the next he's a topflight government agent loyal to the code, then he's an insightful scientific investigator, a an angry rebel, a charismatic crusader or a wise-cracking lady's man.  He's also a raving schizophrenic.

At least he's better off than his love interest who is inserted for no reason and is merely a snitty attitude.  Worse, there are far too many minor characters who are utterly indistinguishable from one another and when they die (as most do) we feel absolutely nothing.  It's hard to care about a character who is nothing but a moustache.

It isn't only characters that suffer.  Events occur without any dramatic necessity to them and the climax of the story involves a race against time where the clock is ticking for reasons that are never revealed.  So far so dreadful, but having established that the world is only hours from doomsday, Russell has our hero, who is the world's only hope of salvation, drop everything and mount a rescue of a minor character.  Why?  I have no idea.  Is this important?  Evidently not because she dies and this has no consequences for anyone or anything.

In other words, this is a book about Fortean mysteries which poses it's own conundrum:  Why on Earth did it ever get reprinted after it's first magazine appearance?

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