Blanks And Postage: Psychedelic Futures
By Jesse Jarnow
January 28th, 2020
Like music, it’s all too easy and obvious to describe the best science fiction novels as “psychedelic.” It’s a quick catch-word for the shattering meta-realities of Philip K. Dick, and a whole range of inter-dimensional playgrounds and plot devices from the “soma” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932 and “spice” of Frank Herbert’s Dune to more recent trips like Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Hannu Rajaniemi’s cosmically re-incepting Jean le Flambeur capers, and the post-singularity WWWWTTTTTFFFF of Charles Stross’s Accelerando. It’s a good way to describe writers as diverse as Stanislaw Lem and M. John Harrison. But Philip K. Dick and a few other usages excepted, mind-manifesting drugs probably became a lazy excuse for a plot twist sometime after Aldous Huxley himself helped his friend Humphry Osmond coin the word “psychedelic” in the late ‘50s but before LSD became illegal in 1966.
Published between 1967 and 1970, however, The Greenwich Village Trilogy is in another class — psychedelic in the sense that the three books were written by, for, and about users of psychedelic drugs. New editions from the good ol’ reprint house Dover put the long out-of-print three-author collaboration back into circulation — and presumably, back into the hands of psychedelic users. Though they are probably more rightly regarded as high pulp than high literary achievements, taken together, Chester Anderson’s The Butterfly Kid, Michael Kurland’s The Unicorn Girl, and T.A. Waters’s The Probability Pad are charming romps from (and back to) an age when the marmalade skies seemed infinite.
Anderson and Waters’s books set themselves in an ever-so-slightly futuristic New York of the late ‘70s, where pot is casually legal, videophones are standard tech, and unexplained contact highs are the norm. Another science fiction cliche is that science fiction is never about the future at all, and much of what delights about The Greenwich Village Trilogy is just how it telescopes outward from the already pretty-weird mid-‘60s present. The joy of the books is that they take place in the wake of the psychedelic revolution. As The Butterfly Kid opens, the world is generally okay, filled with group trips and fuzzed-out baroque-rock (“barock”) bands in custom buses. At least until the giant baroque/fluorescent butterflies arrive and start flapping amok and stopping traffic around the Village. Then it gets, you know, weird.
The Unicorn Girl, a time-travel joint, isn’t quite as successful at channeling the ‘60s, but The Probability Pad’s Hallucitron and battle scenes that pit heads versus aliens are doofy triumphs.The trilogy is technicolor pulp through and through, and (in flashes, at its best) a cuddlier timeline just adjacent to the one containing Thomas Pynchon’s Gordita Beach.
Published originally by Pyramid Books (“the hippies had a new kick–from outer space!”), The Butterfly Kid’s “turned-on science fiction”earned Chester Anderson a Hugo nomination. By the time the second edition came out, Anderson had relocated to California and the proceeds also earned him enough to purchase a printing press and found the Haight-Ashbury’s Communications Company, aka com/co, where the anarchist organizers the Diggers printed manifestos and broadsides. Anderson and com/co provided a social media-like platform, distributing messages by hand, on telephone poles and on walls, helping to provide on-the-fly organizing and in-the-moment shit-stirring.
These radical countercultural energies don’t quite shine through in The Butterfly Kid and its partners. At their most basic, the books are artifacts of an earlier media era, when many more eyeballs sought kicks via the printed word. Then, as now, there was a remarkable and nearly infinite thirst for text, and it’s amazing to think of sheer variety of books and magazines that poured out news and lurid coverage of the countercultural explosion, occupying the racks for a few weeks or months as the world tumbled through radical changes. In the ‘60s, probably more Americans sought mind-expansion through textual approximations than LSD itself. The Greenwich Village Trilogy fits right into this broader literary oeuvre.
Underground Australian scholars Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre have begun to map out the vast world of pulp fictions, most lately in the essay anthology Sticking It To The Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980 (PM Press, $34.95). Though the East Village longhairs get a chapter via Bill Osgerby’s excellent “‘Up Against the Wall Motherfucker’: The Yippie Literaries,” hippies and starry-eyed utopians make up a decided minority in the collection’s representation of the counterculture. A portrait of global turbulence and radical change, the essays are far more inclusive than the Woodstock-and-psychedelics rendition of mid-century “counterculture,” rightly encompassing feminism, gay representation, campus politics, and numerous blaxploitation thrillers. But the book’s definition of “revolution” sometimes steers more towards the reactionary than the radical, as in numerous chapters about fictional vigilantes (including the original Rambo paperbacks).
While it’s perhaps a more diverse portrait of the era, it doesn’t always feel cohesive. But if there’s a lack of counterculture in the longhaired sense, there’s plenty of broader historical solidarity in the deep and surprising scholarship on Quebecois separatist adventure thrillers, Australian labor uprisings, and other unexpected topics. In Sticking It To The Man, “counterculture” remains as wide and vibrant an umbrella as ever, a welcoming space for anybody actively engaged in opposing the status quo. There is no science fiction in Sticking It To The Man, alas, but (in the volume’s introduction) the authors promise a follow-up, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1960 to 1985, coming sometime next year from PM Press.
Presumably The Butterfly Kid, The Unicorn Girl, and The Probability Pad will fit in there somewhere, too. Even in the scheme of ‘60s New Wave sci-fi, though, they are surely minor and light-hearted works set next to the head-friendly paradigm-shifters by Samuel R. Delany or Ursula K. Le Guin or J.G. Ballard. But in that way the Greenwich Village Trilogy perhaps even more effectively channels the ephemeral kindred spirits of pulp and the psychedelic ‘60s. While the racks were stocked with pulp about cops and crime and sex, they were also filled with equally disposable paperbacks filled with puzzles, biographies of bubblegum pop bands, TV and movie novelizations, sports bios, comics, and just about anything and everything else fit (and often not fit) to print.
If the Greenwich Village Trilogy doesn’t quite articulate the grand visions one might hope for from acid-gobbling sci-fi writing beardos, they are also genuinely in-the-future-moment narratives filled with wry sociological detail and winking local satire.
“Chester has disappeared,” one character notes in The Probability Pad.
“He might have gone about Fourteenth Street,” another character replies.
The Greenwich Village Trilogy is science fiction, yes, but science fiction from an age when that didn’t have to be space opera, cyberpunk, philosophical manifestoes about imagined societies or technologies, expanded universes, world building, trade wars, galactic politics, or (despite being the ‘60s) even deeper utopian cosmic messages. Cable TV was nonexistent, late movies only came on late at night, and print media provided some of the only reliable access to far-off worlds. It still does. The fun of the Greenwich Village Trilogy isn’t only imagining the world it describes, but the world that made it, where–literal or not–the fluorescent baroque butterflies were real.