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UNKNOWN magazine and "Sinister Barrier"

Unknown

The cover of the first issue of Unknown magazine, featuring Eric Frank Russell's "Sinister Barrier". Copyright © 1939 by Street & Smith Publications Inc.

Astounding was not the only magazine edited by John W Campbell. Unknown, also published by Street & Smith, first appeared in March 1939, 18 months after Campbell took over Astounding. Unknown continued on a monthly basis until December 1940, and then bi-monthly from February 1941 to October 1943, when it was canceled due to the wartime paper shortage. In contrast to the Science Fiction published in Astounding, its new sister magazine was focused more on the "weird tales" genre. Nevertheless, many of Campbell's stable of authors from Astounding -- such as L Ron Hubbard, Eric Frank Russell, A E van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon and Robert A Heinlein -- were also regular contributors to Unknown.

Unknown started with a bang. The lead story in the first issue was "Sinister Barrier" by Eric Frank Russell, which takes up more than half the magazine. At 50,000 words the story is virtually a complete novel -- Russell's first. While not as slick, in characterization and plotting, as his later novels such as Dreadful Sanctuary, the story is still full of invention on all fronts. In terms of plot, it's a relatively straightforward conflict with a race of powerful and elusive aliens -- a theme Russell later addressed in more polished form in his novel Three to Conquer (serialized in Astounding as "Call Him Dead" in August, September and October 1955). However, the novelty of "Sinister Barrier" lies in the way it's presented -- as a fictionalized speculation as to the origin of a wide range of Fortean phenomena (lights in the sky, mysterious disappearances, extra-sensory perception...). In an "Author's Note" at the start of the story, Russell says that "Sinister Barrier" is "as true a story as it is possible to concoct while presenting believe-it-or-not truths in the guise of entertainment". He cites a number of "real-life" sources behind the ideas in the novel, including Charles Fort's own speculation "I think we are property".

"Sinister Barrier" is set in 2015, which is still in the future at the time of writing (2003), but nothing like as far in the future as it was in 1939. In many ways, the technology in the story has worn well, with references to television, rocket planes and streamlined 120 mph ground vehicles. Not surprisingly, there's no mention of atom bombs or radar (these being secret military projects at the time), but the weapon that finally defeats the enemy is based on circularly polarized microwaves -- an idea that now seems remarkably prescient.

In the true Fortean tradition, "Sinister Barrier" is packed with newspaper clippings of the weird variety. But despite the story's future setting, and in keeping with Russell's stated intention of presenting fact in the form of fiction, these are all real news items -- as Russell himself says, "every back-dated press item mentioned in this story is absolutely authentic".

"Beyond that sinister barrier of our limitations, outside that poor, footling range of vision, bossing every one of us from the cradle to the grave, invisibly preying on us, are our malicious , all-powerful lords and masters, the creatures who really own the Earth."
Copyright © 2003 Andrew May Visit www.andrew-may.com

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