Barring the Way

Establishing a no-go area with a difference. This edition published by Corgi Books 1966.

We don’t like barriers.  Even if we know they’ve been erected for our own protection, we can get a niggling sense that they obstruct our freedom of movement – or freedom of thought.  We want to be masters of our own destiny, with no-one else telling us what to do, where to go, or what to think.  Taken to extremes, the existence of a barrier can compel some people to want to cross it regardless of consequences – just because it’s there.  And sometimes we simply want to know what’s on the other side – the lure of the unknown – which might also tell us why it was erected in the first place.

Many barriers serve an entirely practical purpose and, in one form or another, tend to be quite prolific in science fiction – force fields, deflector shields and so on – often with the purpose of keeping something undesirable out, whether it be approaching missiles or an unwelcome intruder.

In the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, the force field erected around a spacecraft on the surface of the planet Altair IV proved to be essential in keeping away the invisible intruder marauding around outside, though even then it showed itself to be of limited value given the true nature of the being involved.  Most of the Federation fleet in Star Trek would probably have been turned fairly quickly into so much molten wreckage by various enemies if it had not had the benefit of the shields protecting individual spacecraft, but which still seemed to “go down” with frightening regularity.

Some barriers, though, can be unexpected and quite original.  The science fiction author Damon Knight gave the evocative title Beyond the Barrier to a novel in 1964, in which a university lecturer on the subject of temporal energy encounters a series of apparently inexplicable events.  In due course much, though not all, is explained when he finds that time travel is fairly common in the future.  And the ruling caste of the human race some tens of thousands of years from now find a way to construct a Time Barrier beyond which they can live in seclusion – “all by themselves, safe and contented” – free from those aliens they seem to consider racially inferior who are left in their past…along with some other very unpleasant entities with whom they want no contact whatsoever.

It’s an interesting variation on the usual idea of geographically isolated groups who set up barriers to keep out the undesirables.  Those hardly need explanation since we see them happening all the time, and we may even be guilty of imposing such defences ourselves.  The barrier created around an enclosed community in the 1974 film Zardoz enables the Eternals to maintain their aesthetic existence free from interference by the supposedly inferior Brutals living in squalor outside, though even then their secluded lifestyle turns out to be not all they would have wanted.

But barriers to thought can be particularly insidious.  Changing thought patterns through some sophisticated technology such as mind probes or mind-altering drugs features fairly often in science fiction – just think how the heroes in the 1990 film Total Recall, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from 2004, have their entire memories and personalities adapted by such means.

In the long run, though, changes by more subtle means may be no less effective.  The development of Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984 shows how simple and progressive changes to everyday language, controlled in this case by the state through the media, can erect barriers to thought.  After sufficient time, and certainly as generations pass, the very concept of sedition or rebellion becomes impossible when one is actually unable to frame a seditious thought in one’s mind.

In fact, one wouldn’t even be able to adequately frame the thought to recognise that a barrier to proper thinking exists in the first place.  It could be there right now and we wouldn’t know it.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Time and Time and Time Again | Things Ain’t What They Used To Be

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