It is easy to forget what astonishing work was being published in the late ‘60s. Much of it, of course, has been dismissed because it has been classified as science fiction or speculative fiction. Similarly, we are seeing a number of books today feted by the mainstream literati which are works of science fiction and speculative fiction or have a clear debt to these genres, where everything is done to deny that connection.
This awful snobbishness does no one any favours. It denies a whole tradition of truly excellent writing by trying to consign it to a dustbin marked ‘rubbishy writing’, perhaps to leave the field clear for much of the sub-standard work that passes for literary work today.
Barefoot in the Head is a case in point. I suspect many readers of mainstream literature have never heard of it, or if they have heard of they will have dismissed because it is sf. Their loss. Their big loss. What is worse is that a book of this nature is pushed into the shadows when it should be held up as an example of the finest literature of the mid-twentieth century.
The premiss of the work is that a war has been waged with bombs that have sprayed the population of Europe with psychotropic drugs – the Acid Head Wars. Into this world comes a charismatic figure swiftly promoted to the role of messiah, leading a cavalcade of freaked out types across a devastated Europe.
In lesser hands this would have been an interesting idea. Aldiss turns it into a multi-levelled and extremely sublime work of literature. The whole work is written from the perspective of someone affected by the bombs. The whole book is a trip. But it is not a messy, sprawling piece of writing. Tightly constructed, the word play is dazzling and the imagery intense. Layer after layer reveals deep philosophical points and exposes the violence at the heart of modern Europe.
The language used puts it on a par with Joyce, yet makes it far more accessible than Joyce ever managed. The obsession with cars and crashes and sex prefigures Ballard’s seminal work. The examination of religion and the manipulation of religious impulse were relevant both in the ‘60s and are equally important now. From anyone’s point of view, this is an important work. It is not an easy read as it takes a while to immerse yourself in the rhythm and pick up the layers that resonate from the word play. However, it is well worth persisting, if for no other reason than to see what can be done with words.