This post of Altered States by author Paddy Chayefsky has been adapted from two previous posts. First is the spoiler free review, followed by the spoiler full review and summary.
Spoiler Free Review
I was lucky enough to first see the Altered States movie at a special screening on 35mm. The movie blew me away. It was so unlike any other sci fi movies I could think of. The philosophy behind it was new and the science used to explain it wasn’t outright laughable.
I saw that it was based on a book but when I went to buy it I found that it’s been out of print for quite some time. It looked like I would have to find a used copy at some point. I put it on my to read list and then just kind of forgot about it until my boyfriend surprised me with a heavily used copy for Christmas.
He said he bought the copy that was listed as still containing all of the pages. So sad that this wonderful book hasn’t been printed in so long and that it’s so difficult to find an adequate and readable copy!
But after all of that I am very happy to report that the book is exactly like the movie. It’s a brilliant adaptation of an extremely complex novel and I recommend both completely.
The basic premise is that an eccentric experimental psychiatrist professor believes that he can unlock the grand consciousness through use of an ancient hallucinogenic mushroom.
He believes that all consciousness is connected. Not just through one living person to another but through all human history as well. He finds he can relive memories from early human ancestors.
He goes on an intense and bizarre journey through use of this drug and learns invaluable lessons about what it means to be alive and how consciousness came to be. Everything anyone thinks they know about the fundamental realities of physics and humanity will be turned upside down.
The author went to great pains to make Altered States as scientifically accurate as possible given the completely out there premise of the book. He began with a wild idea and worked backwards, interviewing many experts on how, if any of this were possible, would it work.
A lot of theorizing goes into this book but it largely succeeds as a hard sci fi novel. Many science fiction stories get lazy with the science part. They move technology to the point that it’s basically magic, they stick to vague descriptions, or at worst they misuse existing science just to sound smart.
Altered States is anything but lazy. Casual readers may find the language challenging but almost everything can be deciphered through context. The characters are all highly regarded scientists in their fields and speak as experts would. Nothing is dumbed down but it never comes off as pretentious.
For as much happens in this book it is surprisingly short, under 200 pages, and I finished it very quickly. The characters and story are completely engaging and I was immersed in the concepts.
I highly recommend this one, please try and find a copy. But if you can’t the movie really is a very true adaptation and I can recommend it as well.
And if you still want a trippy sci fi book to check out I recommend Opposable: The Halteres Chronicles.
Altered States Summary
Altered States is a wonderfully trippy adventure through time, space, and the human psyche. It touches the face of god and then brings it all right back to real scientific theory in a way that I’ve never seen before.
I was first exposed to Altered States through the movie. I was lucky enough to see a screening on 35mm and was in awe the whole time. A sci fi movie that didn’t shy away from combining real science with hardcore philosophy! It didn’t pussyfoot around any of it!
So I saw that it was based on a book but was very disappointed to find the book long out of print. My boyfriend surprised me with a highly worn copy for Christmas and it was the best gift I could have asked for.
The book is exactly like the movie. So if you’ve seen the movie and liked it you’ll like this one. It’s beat for beat the same. A lot of the dialogue is even word for word. It’s an incredibly impressive adaptation considering how bizarre the story gets.
Let’s get into it.
Edward Jessup is a professor studying sensory deprivation. He decides to try the tank for himself and is instantly hooked on the hallucinations and intense experience he had.
If you’ve never tried a sensory deprivation tank, you should. How it works is you are in a shallow tank of water set to body temperature with enough salt in it that you float easily. It is pitch black, absolutely no light, and sound proof. As you float weightless in the dark you have no external sensory input so your mind either relaxes and goes blank or creates it’s own experience.
I’ve done these tanks a few times myself and can say from experience that time gets weird without any cues. I can see why these tanks are often used as part of time travel stories. I’ve had an hour feel like 4 hours or 20 minutes. There’s no predicting it.
His research is put on hold and he meets his wife Emily at a party full of intellectuals. She’s a physical anthropologist who finds him absolutely fascinating. They hit it off and sleep together that night, he admits to her that he used to have intense visions of god as a child but does not anymore outside of religious thoughts during sex and other intense experiences.
Jessup does have a certain religiosity to him. Also the language of the book can get pretty complex. Here’s a quote that sums up both aspects quite well:
“a column of halos rose out of the whiteness, annulated like the trunk of a tree, evolving into a golden helix, involuting around itself and filled with frantic, vermiform, fork-shaped spots of pulsating light like a microscopic view of holy chromosomes.”
That should pretty much tell you if the book is your style or not.
But anyway, Jessup and Emily court for a while but she leaves him after she decides she wants to get married but he’s incapable of love or emotions.
She attempts to get lost in her work but cannot fall out of love with him so she runs back to him and says she’ll settle for good sex and respect, love not needed. They get married.
7 years later they have two kids and are getting divorced because it turns out you do need love. Jessup is still obsessed with finding the root of consciousness and it has taken over every aspect of his life.
His next course of action is to go to Mexico to take hallucinogenic mushrooms as part of an ancient tribal ceremony. When he wakes after tripping crazy balls all night he is told that he ate a lizard.
He says, no that he hallucinated that but they show him the carcass. Of a lizard that had been eaten. A lizard not native to the area. He begins to wonder if it’s possible that his hallucination could have manifested to reality.
They bring some of the mushrooms back with them to distill and perform more experiments with. Jessup takes quite a few sessions of them before they discover that it is not metabolized normally. It could be building up in his hippocampus and could be quite dangerous but he insists on moving the experiment to the isolation tanks.
He has a brief episode of hallucinating without having taken more of the drugs but brushes it off and persists with the experiments.
His first trip in the tank is amplified tenfold. He has a vision of his first human ancestor killing and eating his present self. He concludes that the drug brings back primordial memories hiding in the DNA.
When he finally comes out of the tank he is unable to speak. His academic friends who have been helping him take some blood samples and get him a neck X-Ray which concludes that his throat physiologically changed to temporarily be more similar to that of an ape than a human. He does return fully to human form within a matter of hours.
Emily had been in Africa with their children studying great apes and returns to a very excitable Jessup. She is very uncertain about his wild allegations despite the physical evidence confirming his theories.
He goes back to the tank alone to take more of the drug. When he emerges from his trip he is no longer human. He is a pre-human ape like ancestor and is wild with id. He rampages out of the university and follows a pack of wild dogs to the zoo.
Stricken with only the need to survive he kills and eats an antelope and passes out, naked in the zoo. That’s where security finds him and calls his wife.
Despite the obvious danger he insists on doing it one more time under observation. Emily and his two friends, which are great foils to Jessup’s character by the way, watch as he once again turns into an ape creature. Horrified they run many tests on him under sedation.
After the sedation wears off he explodes in a psychedelic shifting mass of screaming terror and light. He alternates forms in a painful and time altering way until Emily makes her way to him to anchor him back to reality.
Hours later he awakens to tell a very distraught Emily that he loves her. Finally, he is able to understand what love is. She keeps him in reality.
He begins to disassociate once more and Emily begins to shift as well. They struggle to find each other in physical space but when they do they are once again brought back to human form.
Love is the backbone of human consciousness and it is the only thing that keeps us from exploding into immaterial directionless energy.
I love that.
So yes, this book is wild. But the author went to great pains to make this wild concept as grounded in scientific accuracy as possible. As theoretical as it is, it makes as much sense as something this crazy could. He interviewed many experts to tell him if any of this were possible, how would it happen.
The characters also ring true to me. Scientific minds can often be socially lacking and speak in manners that are brusque and technical. I’ve met these people before.
I highly recommend this book. Please try to find a copy. However, if you cannot the movie really is a good substitute in this case.
5/5 apes 🦍🦍🦍🦍🦍
For a different kind of trippy book check out Goodbye, Moonflower.
in order to keep me up to my ears in books please consider using the following amazon affiliate links to purchase these products. it’s at no extra cost to you and would really help me out, thank you and happy reading!
Buy the book here: Altered States: A Novel
Buy the movie here: Altered States [Blu-ray]
10 thoughts on “Altered States, Book Review and Summary”
Have you come across the Scottish folktale of Tam Lin? Just the other day my wife was telling my about it and I thought “That sounds like the ending of Altered Stares…” So I’ve been wondering if it might have been part of the inspiration for the novel.
Oh interesting. I have not, definitely going to have to look it up now though
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