At the close of the 1960s, pop culture came under the spell of psychedelics. You didn't need to drop acid to see rainbow colors and floating flowers blossoming in the sky. You found psychedelia in Peter Max posters, the Beatles' Yellow Submarine animated feature, Robert Corman's movie The Trip (filmed in 'psychedelic color' according to the marketing campaign), even on TV sets for The Dating Game and Laugh-In. Congress finally prohibited the possession of LSD in 1968, but it was already too late to stop the spread of the 'acid aesthetic' into American households. For a brief spell, people even wore tie-dyed T-shirts without provoking ridicule and laughter.
Okay, I made up the last part. People ridiculed tie-dyed shirts even back in the Summer in Love.
Brian Aldiss, born above a Norfolk draper's shop in 1925, must seem a most unlikely participant in this revolution. He was already in his forties and well established as a science fiction writer when the world turned on and went groovy. Aldiss had served in World War II, got married in 1948, and became a father in 1955. His first successful literary foray came with the publication of a collection of fictional diary entries based on his experiences at a Oxford bookstore, The Brightfound Diaries (1955). In short, Aldiss confronted the hippie phenomenon from a safe perch half a world away, both figuratively and literally, from the manic drug-induced literary exploits of a Ken Kesey or Hunter Thompson.
Yet Aldiss delivered the most ambitious psychadelic sci-fi novel of the era, Barefoot in the Head, certainly not his best book but arguably his most au courant. There are many things to admire in this work, but perhaps most impressive is Aldiss's insight that if you give people a sufficient amount of mind-altering narcotics, they might start talking like characters in Finnegans Wake. Sure, the concept is far-fetched —would acid-heads really spontaneously spout all those Joycean puns and double meanings?—but still appealing in its own topsy- turvy way.
Aldiss was hardly the only sci-fi writer to fall under the spell of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness during the 1960s and 1970s. We find similar techniques applied in, for example, Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, Philip José Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" (the centerpiece of Harlan Ellison’s collection Dangerous Visions), Philip K. Dick's VALIS, and Thomas M. Disch's Camp Concentration (where the injection of a drug is also a pretext for Joycean extravagance), and other cutting edge sci-fi works. The influence of Joyce can also detected at many points in the The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, and A Case of Conscience by James Blish. Even highbrow literary lions strived to combine Joyce and genre, as demonstrated by Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange and Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor.
But most of these sci-fi works hedged their bets. Blish drew on Joyce for symbolic resonance and not as a model for sentence construction. Wilson and Disch, in contrast, balanced stream-of- consciousness techniques with more conventional methods of narrative. Dick, for his part, was Dick, and didn't need a copy of Ulysses to achieve his peculiar departures from traditional sci-fi writing. Burgess, Delany and Ballard, in contrast, took the most chances with their prose, but even their excesses (at least the semantic ones; plot is another matter entirely) seem tame in comparison with the verbal freak-out of Barefoot in the Head.
Aldiss's story begins in the aftermath of a new World War, during which bombs filled with hallucinogenics fell on many European cities. Peace now reigns, but social norms and institutions have collapsed as citizens struggle to distinguish between reality and drug-induced fantasy. Building are intact, but the minds of the citizenry have been pharmaceuticalized into submission. Our protagonist Colin Charteris is fleeing Italy, where he worked in United Nations refugee camps, and heading towards Britain. The novel begins in Metz, where a semblance of order still holds society together—France was neutral in the acid war, and avoided the worst of the mind devastation. But when Charteris crosses over into England, he finds only disorder and paradox. He falls under the spell of the drugs himself, and his thinking and speech grow increasingly strange. His language now becomes semi-coherent, bursting with metaphors—as does the novel itself—yet with sage-like overtones.
In England, Charteris finds himself lauded as a prophet. He and his followers take to the road, preaching a new philosophy of life, a mixture of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky as filtered through the language of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicke and Anna Livia Plurabelle. Through the craziness of his speech blossoms a promise of renewal: "What we have seen is worth all collapse and the old Christianity world so rightly in ruins if you forsake all and live where there is most life in the world I offer. There the laternatives flick flock thickly by…Europlexion and the explexion of conventional time the time by which predecyclic man imposed himself against nature by armed marching cross-wise to conceal body-mind apart hide dissillusion."
Take that, you grammarians, and scan it!
Aldiss’s trippy tale now reveals nuances and overtones of the Christ story. Charteris finds himself the focal point of his followers' hopes and dreams, but also subsumed by the shifting political and social landscape. He promises liberation, in cryptic terms, but this also might turn into revolution. Disciples could easily become doubters or betrayers. Above all, the whole movement threatens to collapse back into passive acceptance of the status quo. Charteris and the acid war might launch a new chapter in western civilization, or simply reiterate, in debased parody, the same old story, but now rewritten in bright rainbow colors.
This is a peculiar book to assess. Some of it is highly derivative. Joyce's fingerprints are everywhere, but the influence of J.G. Ballard is almost as marked here. Aldiss embraces Ballard's fixation with speed and automobiles, as well as his sci-fi colleague's stylized juxtaposition of mathematics and violence (the word "geometry," one of Ballard's favorites, frequently shows up in unexpected places). Yet the sheer inventiveness of the language, the effervescent wordplay, demands praise. Aldiss creates wild neologisms, adopts alternative spellings that convey diabolical meanings, spews out wicked puns, turns the names of sci-fi authors into nouns and adjectives (people drive in Heinleiner cars, and rise after death in a "vanvogtian upward surge"), and in general has endless fun with the liberties of the hallucinogenic conceit. No, I don’t believe for a moment that terminal acid-heads could talk like this, but I enjoy the pretense.
Science fiction retreated from its Joycean aspirations soon after this book came out. Even Aldiss stepped back from its more extreme techniques. But in that regard, Barefoot in the Head is merely one more instance of that late 1960s ethos that promised a permanent revolution, yet merely delivered a brief liberating interlude, almost a dreamtime (if I can borrow an Australian aboriginal concept), during which almost anything seemed possible, even the reinvention of the ground rules for communal life. As subsequent events made clear, possibilities were more constrained than the hippies realized, and the future not all that different from the past. Tie-dyed shirts went back into the closet, and a lot of people got haircuts. But if you pay close attention to the final pages of this novel, you just might decide that Aldiss saw all that coming. Far more clearly than the Keseys and Thompsons, he knew that even the craziest trips eventually come to an end.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.