Fog and a drizzling rain shroud the story, providing an appropriate metaphor for characters—Marta, her husband Jan, a sadistic German policeman—who drift into sharp focus for a time, then drift away again, as dissatisfied with their lives as they are helpless to change them. In that final helplessness of the minor characters lies what is perhaps the central theme of the work.
Much of the novel reflects the desire, prevalent during the 1960’s, for a simpler life, one free from the restrictions of society and the demands of human emotion. It pictures clearly the almost pathetic willingness of the time to seek that freedom in any direction, whether inward through drugs and mysticism or outward through swift if aimless motion. Anxieties over an industrial society suffocating in its own wastes are expressed in the book, as are the early fears of Western dependence for oil on an Arab culture that does not share its values. Aldiss captures both the monsters that lurked in the dark for that decade and the time’s facile explanations of them. Moreover, always in the background of the story is the biggest monster of all, the world-destroying conflict of nations.
For science fiction as for music, the 1960’s was a time of experiment. The apocalypse had been a familiar subject since the explosion of the atom bomb in 1945, but Aldiss’ work was to give the subject a new treatment. In Barefoot in the Head, one sees the world ending, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, not with a bang but a whimper. The book is an end-of-the-world story: the meaningless life of Charteris and his followers offers no hopes better than those of the prewar society. The most popular character of the real novelist, Leslie Charteris, from whom the hero of the story takes his name, is a gentleman detective, Simon Templar. From Templar’s initials come his nickname, The Saint. Aldiss’ point may well be that the “Saint Charteris” of his novel is just as accidental a candidate for sanctity. This messiah brings not good news, but bad: that the final result of “wesciv” technology has been to render its descendants incapable of benefiting from it.