Barefoot in the Head Critical Context - Essay

Brian W. Aldiss

Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Some of the experimentation in the science fiction of the 1960’s came not in its handling of theme but in its use of language. Aldiss’ puns and allusions demand of the reader both concentration and learning (often in very obscure corners). To the world of science fiction itself belong many references: the description of one of Angeline’s requests as “vonnegutsy,” for example (a clear reference to the American science-fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and a clever suggestion of the courage she has to ask the question in an awkward situation) or the description of Charteris’ car, which at one point is called a “heinleiner,” alluding to the writer Robert A. Heinlein, though the significance of the term is not as immediately apparent.

Sometimes the multiplicity of references invites the reader to participate actively in the story, since one person’s understanding of the references will surely differ from that of another. Charteris finds Marta in the town of Aalter; the very name of the place reminds the reader that throughout the story Charteris preaches against a logic that divides reality into mutually exclusive alternatives; the nearness of the town to the German border suggests the German word alter, one of the forms of the adjective meaning “old,” and, as an island of relative sanity, the town in a way represents the old order. Marta, whom he finds there, is indeed a sexual alternative to Angeline for Charteris, and he is angry when Angeline demands an old kind of relationship and insists on a choice of alternatives from him: that he choose either Marta or her. This sort of chaining of meaning could be extended, but the example illustrates both the richness of the verbal soil and the variety of interpretations that may grow from it.

Barefoot in the Head marked the zenith of Aldiss’ use of wordplay in the novel. It followed and surpassed in complexity his Report on Probability A (1968), a much better known work. Although his later stories would continue to mark him as a writer of unconventional fiction, none demonstrates it to greater degree than Barefoot in the Head, which in years to come may seem to represent the essence of its time.