conceptual fiction
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Barefoot in the Head

by Brian Aldiss

Essay by Ted Gioia
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

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

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.
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

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

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.

Publication Date: September 15, 2014
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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