7 min read

Discovering the True Nature of Time with Brian Aldiss’ “Cryptozoic!”

time travel, psychedelia and Freud
dinosaurs and humans marching beneath a huge wooden crucifix with a pocketwatch hanging off it.

In a previous post I compared Michael Shea’s gore-soaked fantasy novel Nifft the Lean to a black metal album. This month I’m looking at Cryptozoic! (1967) by Brian Aldiss, which by the same analogy would be a prog-rock concept album, complete with psychedelic extravagance, Freudian mumbling and solos that go on rather too long. It even has a table of contents that looks just like a track listing for Side A and Side B of an LP:

Photo of a book's contents page. Chapter titles include "Up the Entropy Slope", "At the Sign of the Amniote Egg", "On the Decrepit Margins of Time", and "God of Galaxies".
don't tell me you wouldn't want to drop acid in your dorm room and listen to "On the Decrepit Margins of Time"

This is a high-concept time travel novel which, in Aldiss's own words, “did not entirely hatch”. For a long time it feels like Aldiss is casting around trying to figure out what type of book he’s actually writing. Is it a gee-whiz time travel adventure? A dystopian thriller? Or just a literary novel about a guy grieving the death of his mother? None of these pieces really fit together until well into the last third of the novel. But then, like Dave Gilmour letting loose on Dark Side of the Moon, the novel finds a certain bizarre groove, and in the final chapters introduces a truly brain-melting theory of time that is purestrain 60s psychedelia.

The story follows Edward Bush, a time travelling artist with some rather unpleasant attitudes toward women (which hopefully reflect on the character rather than the author, though it’s sometimes hard to tell). After a long period of loafing around in the Jurassic, Bush returns to his home year of 2093 only to find that Britain has been taken over by a fascist dictatorship. The new government soon recruits Bush to hunt down a rogue time traveller named Silverstone, who has been spreading mysterious and heretical ideas about the nature of time itself.

book cover depicting two modern explorers looking in wonder at two huge stegosaurus in the primordial jungle. A volcano is erupting in the background.
1977 edition. Art by Don Punchatz

The mechanism of time travel (or “mind-travel”, as the characters insist on calling it) is pretty unique. Rather than hopping in a time machine, all you need to visit the past is a certain mental training combined with some exotic drugs (this is a 60s novel, after all). One of the more bizarre aspects of the process is that mind-travellers need to leave behind a literal pound of flesh and a bag of blood to “anchor” themselves to their original time period. The main reason the future dictatorship wants to restrict mind-travel is because people can just opt out of society by escaping into the past, while leaving frozen bags of their own blood in their refrigerators back home.

The past itself is an eerie, empty place. The mind-travellers can’t influence anything that has already happened. Nor can they hear, feel or taste anything except what they’ve brought from their own time. As a result, the various historical settings end up more like silent backdrops onto which the mind-travellers project their own concerns.

Bush pursues Silverstone through various historical periods. But when he finally catches up to the man, he decides to switch sides and becomes Silverstone’s disciple. This leads to a long monologue as Silverstone expounds his theory about THE TRUE NATURE OF TIME.

Spoilers below… and I really do think this will “spoil” the book if you were planning to read it, mainly because it’s the only good part. So you've been warned.

this cover is... oh boy. There's a naked androgynous figure with a glowing sun for a head, but the figure is also holding a glowing skull in its hand. The background is a vast empty plain. None of this stuff appears in the book, incidentally.
1984 edition. Art by Peter Goodfellow

Essentially, Silverstone's theory is that time is flowing backwards, and that its apparent forward progress is just an illusion.

"We now have absolute proof—indeed, absolute proof has always existed, but has never been recognised as such—that what we regard as the flow of time in fact moves in the opposite direction to its apparent one. [...]
"You will see from this that all the basic tenets of our thought, painfully acquired over the millennia, are turned on their ear. Every natural law is reversed or shattered… The celebrated second law of thermodynamics, for example—we now begin to see that heat in fact passes from cooler bodies to hotter: suns are collectors of heat, rather than disseminators. Even the nature of heat thus appears changed. Energy accumulates from less organized to more highly organized bodies: piles of rust can integrate into iron rods. [...]
"Some of the major religions of the world—which after all obtain their power from the undermind—must have guessed the true way of things; their claim that we shall all rise again from the grave is nothing less than the literal truth… In the moldering bones of the grave, organization stirs; worms put flesh onto bones; something more and more like a human is built; the coffin is filled, needing only the mourners to come and haul it from the ground, take it home, absorb the moisture from their handkerchiefs, and clutch each other just before the first breath enters the body."

This theory might raise many questions with the reader, ranging from “What the fuck are you on about?” to “Wait, haven't you just swapped the meaning of the words 'past' and 'future’?” Nevertheless, it leads to some wonderfully deranged imagery as we learn that the life cycle of human beings ends with them slithering into their mothers’ wombs:

Every human being… grows younger and smaller, with most of his faculties reaching maturity just before he loses the abilities of puberty. He then grows through boyhood, probably attending school to forget the knowledge he will no longer need. The decline into helplessness is comparatively swift and merciful; it is possible that at the age called twelve—twelve years to the womb, that is—the human is probably as mentally alert as he will ever be: and he needs all his alertness, for there is the complicated business of unlearning the language to go through. For most, this is a happy period to which they gladly surrender at the end of their life. They can lie back in their mothers' arms and babble without care. They hardly know it when the time comes for them to return to the womb, that grave of the human race…
The mother often experiences first pain and then discomfort over this process; it is a month or two before the child's struggles die away completely and he merges fully with the life of her body. But things do improve for her, and when the child has dwindled to a speck, her husband or lover penetrates her and syphons off the residual matter. The process is complete and they often fall in love before parting forever."
book cover depicting two people in, I guess, futuristic space suits, standing on a plain of boiling lava and superheated rocks. The man and the woman both have transparent images of their own faces projected over them, huge and ghostly. Inside the man's giant ghostly face you can just make out a stegosaurus! I honestly didn't notice that until just now.
1985 edition. Art by Mark Salwowski

But perhaps the most shocking revelation is that people actually eat poop with their butts and poop food from their mouths:

Eating and elimination are merely the reverse of what the overmind has assured us was the case. It may seem revolting, but that is because it is new... When you have lived with the idea for a year or two, as I have, you will find it no more objectionable than the idea of chopping up animals and cooking and eating them.”

Shortly after this revelation, Silverstone is killed by agents of the 2092 regime. Bush and the other disciples are saved by mind-travellers from further into the future (which is actually the past). Bush is then visited by his own granddaughter, who “has been trained for years to speak backwards” in order to communicate with him. She explains that soon everyone in 2093 will accept Silverstone’s view of time—but since time is backwards, what they're really doing is forgetting the truth about time as they grow younger.

No, this doesn’t make sense if you pick at it even a little bit. But there is a certain bleak wonder to the idea. It all ties back to the Freudian theme of repression that has run throughout the book. The reason time appears “backwards” to contemporary humans is because we are repressing the unbearable truth that humanity has already entered its final decline:

You have had the distraction of all your smaller pains to hide the larger pain from you… the pain of being fully aware of your glorious faculties slipping away one by one, generation by generation. Of seeing the engineers constructing ever cruder engines; the governments losing their enlightenment in favor of slavery; the builders pulling down comfortable houses, building less convenient ones; the chemists degenerating into old men looking for a metal to transmute into gold… this all happens only a pathetic few generations after you four fade back into your mothers. Could you bear that? It's the senescence of an entire species! Could you bear to see the last rudiments of agriculture lost before a grubby nomadism? Could you bear to see huts exchanged for poor caves? Could you bear to see the human eye grow dull as intelligence left it? […]
"That terrible process, the senescence of Earth, could never be reversed! Mankind has to go the hard way into the scuttling mindless world of the jungle… No escape—no hope of escape! But the overmind fell like a vizor and protected mankind from realising the full horror of his ultimate decay.”

The novel concludes with the characters confronting this bleak truth. All human progress is actually our inevitable decay, viewed in a cosmic mirror.

This idea might not make any literal sense, but it still hits home on a more metaphorical level. In 1967, Aldiss's generation were already beginning to question the assumption that human society would keep getting better indefinitely. Here in 2024, that concept is well and truly smashed on the rocks of time.

Availability: Cryptozoic! is readily available in eBook format or second-hand in various editions.

Further Reading

  • Games writer Andy Johnson has a very different opinion on Behold The Man compared to my review. Apparently art is subjective or something.
  • Patrick Stuart writes about the mysterious Muppets-meets-WWI miniatures game Quar Wars.

To leave a comment or suggest a weird old book, find me on Bluesky @gnipahellir.bsky.social, on Cohost @WillGreatwich, or email me at paperbackpicnic@gmail.com.

Header cover art by Don Punchatz.