SF Books of the Damned

Science fiction writers have always had a soft spot for Charles Fort's iconoclastic suggestions about science and reality. As the proverb goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". The sf hacks, while paying lip service to scientific dogma, were just as keen as Fort to locate science's contradictions and loopholes – preferably loopholes wide enough to drive faster-than-light spaceships through, in defiance of Einstein's tiresome speed limits. It made for better stories. And even sf authors who didn't pay much heed to science still found Fort's colourful ideas well worth stealing.

So there's a fair amount of sf which has what you might call Fortean Awareness. It was the distinguished sf author and critic Damon Knight who wrote the first full-scale biography of our hero, Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained (1970). A.E. van Vogt's 1940s Weapon Shops of Isher series starts with a (fake) newspaper clipping only slightly weirder than some of those Fort collected, and ends with the gnomic and curiously Fortean remark "Here is the race [i.e. humanity] that shall rule the sevagram" – made all the more cryptic because van Vogt never actually told you what a sevagram was. In 1977, Gene DeWeese and Robert Coulson perpetrated an in-joky sf novel whose best point, I have to admit, was its title ... Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats.

All these writers, including Fort, are mere Americans. (Canadian, in van Vogt's case.) But the sf author who most wholeheartedly took the ball from Charles Fort and ran with it was Britain's very own Eric Frank Russell – with his first novel Sinister Barrier, published in 1939 in the US fantasy magazine Unknown.

Eric Frank Russell was born in 1905, died in 1978, and is best known for later sf works written in a wisecracking American style – cleverly crafted to sell to American magazines. A typical Russell plot pits a single human smartarse against an entire planetful of dim aliens, who have no chance against the fast-talking Earthling. The most outrageous example is variously titled Plus X, The Space Willies or Next of Kin, wherein a lone Earthman in solitary confinement on an alien prison world talks his way to freedom (and incidentally demoralizes the entire enemy war effort) using only a fake gadget made from twisted wire and a fairytale about being accompanied through life by a powerful invisible companion called Eustace ... all in all, a theology slightly more convincing than L. Ron Hubbard's. In Sinister Barrier, though, the inventive human race gets the short end of the stick. The whole book grew from one of Fort's most inspiredly worrying throwaway lines, "I think we're property."

Specifically, in Russell's story we are herds tended by psychic vampires called Vitons, who ghoulishly feed on our emotions. The book is prefaced by an offbeat but seemingly genuine newspaper clipping about eight dead starlings falling mysteriously and Forteanly out of the sky to land in Fifth Avenue, while another flew madly into a restaurant as though pursued. "What killed the eight starlings? What frightened the ninth? Was there some Presence in the sky? ..." This is the tried and tested literary technique known as Unsubtle Foreshadowing.

Sinister Barrier begins with a plague of dying scientists, who all around the world pop off from apparently natural causes or seeming suicide while trying to convey some terrible knowledge. "Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking," muses victim number one, just before some Presence gets him. Soon the death toll reaches nineteen, with cops puzzled by the common factor that all the corpses have carefully painted some part of themselves – e.g. the left arm, from shoulder to elbow – with tincture of iodine.

Next in the casualty list is an entire US town, Silver City in the southern Rocky Mountains, which apparently suffers a nuclear strike ... except that there's no radioactivity. And what in fact blew up was a million gallons of innocuous silver nitrate solution at a photographic company. Can such things be? And did Russell really predict atomic mushroom clouds in 1939? No, no: with the incandescent radiance of hindsight, he revised Sinister Barrier in 1948.

I forgot to mention that the scientists using iodine in place of sunblock were also discovered (in many a merry autopsy) to have consumed mescaline and methylene blue. Now, Watson, the facts are in your hands. You know my methods. Apply them.... Oh, all right: the sf gimmick is that this cocktail of chemicals has a synergistic, catalytic effect on the human retina. The change lets your eyes function a little further into the infra-red end of the spectrum. Anyone who sees what is to be seen there just has to die. The same goes for photographic companies working on improved IR film stock. We are property, and the human-farmers don't want us to know it.

US government intelligence agent Bill Graham is soon on the trail. The first test of that new photographic emulsion in Silver City had shown strange things like extra, miniature suns in the sky. When Graham takes the fatal iodine treatment, he sees them for himself: the Vitons, our owners. At this point there's a deluge of exposition and Fortean newspaper clippings – Russell had amassed his own research collection of "a thousand press clippings snatched from half a hundred newspapers". You can tell they're authentic, since although this is America in 2015 with gyrocars filling the sky, all the clippings are dated 1942 or earlier....

The secret emerges. For at least 150 years the telepathic, telekinetic and – until now – invisible Vitons have experimented on us, to see if humans with Viton powers can be produced. (Their methods seem subtler than current aliens' habit of thrusting large scaly probes up people's nostrils, Whitley Strieber's rectum, etc.) D.D. Home the 19th-century spiritualist was one of their successes. Kaspar Hauser, "man from nowhere", escaped from a Viton laboratory. Benjamin Bathurst, the British ambassador to Vienna who in 1809 famously walked around his horses and vanished forever, was taken by the Vitons. So were Amelia Earhart, the crew of the Mary Celeste, and lots more. By explaining every Fortean or paranormal oddity that has been recorded, the Vitons constitute what physicists call a TOE – a Theory Of Everything.

So far, these flying spheres have concealed their presence by telepathically spying on people and zapping anyone who catches on. Bill Graham, being tough-minded, manages to think of other things (such as women) until he can spill the beans to a select audience of top officials and world-class scientists: "Gentlemen, another and higher form of life is master of this world!" They believe him at once, because of his "complete sincerity". Two thousand more newspaper clippings about fireballs and ball lightning are mentioned, though mercifully not reproduced: obviously these phenomena are dying Vitons.

Even more obviously, the Vitons have stimulated hapless humanity to invent radar, whose effect on them is like that of a nice shower-bath or back-scratcher. Likewise, they caused us to invent religious and political differences, generating rich crops of the hatred and anger which for Vitons corresponds to fast food. The world wars were their fault. Not ours at all.

Thanks to Graham, and despite detonating radio stations (this particular 2015 America lacks television) and large-scale casualties among newspaper staff, the world is told the bad news – also, how to see Vitons. The gospel of Better Eyesight Through Iodine spreads like wildfire. Hastily, the Vitons whip up a distraction by subverting the "Asian Combine", whose superstitious Orientals are easily convinced that these glowing spheres are ancestral spirits who must be obeyed (oh dear), and go fanatically to war against America.

Suddenly, Russell realizes that he has a whole lot more newspaper clippings still unused, and forgets the world war to spend more pages summarizing reports of glowing lights. Did you know that King George V, when a young prince, "described a strange string of floating lights, 'as if of a phantom vessel all aglow'" at 4am on 11 June 1881? Fortunately we are spared the special 2015 edition of the Herald-Tribune which pays homage to Tiffany Thayer's celebrated Fortean Society magazine by listing "twenty thousand references to luminosities and glowing spheres culled from four hundred issues of Doubt." Russell had contributed enthusiastically to Doubt in the early days when it was called The Fortean Society Magazine.

Back to the war! Huge tracts of America have become rubble thanks to (non-nuclear) rocket attacks from Asia, which have no trouble in reaching even New York. Everyone can now see Vitons, but this doesn't stop the intangible spheres floating down, attaching themselves to your spine, and sucking a tasty snack of nervous energy out of you. People find this, on the whole, depressing. We need a good solid deus ex machina to fight back – but no known weapon will touch Vitons.

Bill Graham, though, has a hunch. His subconscious feeds him a dream about a bear. He broods about this for pages while fighting off Viton-controlled quislings and the like. Could the clue be the constellation, the Great Bear? A bear in a zoo? At last insight comes ... the dream featured a polar bear. So obviously the way to kill Vitons must be with tight beams of polarized microwave radiation. All Graham needs is the right wavelength, obtained by the cunning ruse of telling one of the Vitons' mind slaves that the secret weapon is a-brewing, with various research groups tackling different angles: "You've only got to suggest a wavelength, and I can tell you who's about to try it, and where." The dupe immediately says, "Point five centimetres." Blackout.

Very soon our hero is swivelling an experimental radar installation like a big gun, blasting Viton spheres by the scores and hundreds and thousands, with suitable battle-cries like "You dirty, stinking gobs of parasitic lousery!" The secret weapon specifications are broadcast to the world; humanity can slaughter its capitalist overlords at last; and Graham gets the girl.

Sinister Barrier is not the finest sf novel ever written, even by Eric Frank Russell – it has long been out of print, while Russell's better works do occasionally reappear. But it is the most thoroughly Fortean in its concept. Even the dedication is to Charles Fort, Tiffany Thayer and the Fortean Society of New York (among others). It was this new flavour in sf, and Russell's ingenious use of hefty supporting documentation to bolster the credibility of the Vitons, that persuaded the original magazine publishers Street & Smith to plug it as "the greatest imaginative yarn of two decades", destined to "go down in history along with H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Sutton Vane's Outward Bound." Sutton who?

A later Russell novel, Dreadful Sanctuary (serialized in Astounding SF in 1948; various revisions 1951 to 1967), also used a Fortean notion. One source was Fort's lost book with the one-letter title X, whose MS was destroyed, though various letters that Fort wrote about it survive. The premise: our civilization is invisibly controlled by far-off beings on Mars. Elsewhere, Fort suggested that Earth is a lunatic asylum where advanced races from other worlds dump their rejects; he painted a terrible picture of such visitors going native and sinking into "what their own far-advanced people regard as perhaps unmentionable, or anyway, unprintable, degradations. They would join our churches and wallow in pews. They'd lose all sense of decency and become college professors...."

In Dreadful Sanctuary, the wisecracking scientist hero is told after many dangerous adventures that Earth is a vast booby-hatch. Only the Chinese are native Earthfolk, other races being the dregs of the Solar System – colour-coded by planet, with blacks hailing from Mercury, browns from Venus and whites from Mars. Supposedly, the sane descendants of exiled Martians are running the world and sabotaging space research to keep Earth's lunatics securely confined. In "fact", with proper Fortean scepticism, our hero questions this scenario and finds it to be a scam – a deluded but still deadly cult of powerful Earthmen who believe they have extraterrestrial ancestry. The big lie is exploded by flying a rocket to Mars and demonstrating that this planet does not, in fact, harbour a society of white supremacists. Alternatively, in a weird 1963 revision of the book whose US editor reckoned that downbeat endings were more mature, the hero fails and the cult triumphs. Very peculiar.

Eric Frank Russell's sf is still well worth seeking out. Charles Fort himself can have the last word: "I cannot say that truth is stranger than fiction, because I have never had acquaintance with either."