Book Review: Island by Aldous Huxley
I think many libertarians are a bit like myself, and tend to like a good dystopian novel. 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Anthem, etc. It’s typically a book detailing a future utopian society, where government controls the lives of their citizens for their own good (1984 being the exception there), but the world the book portrays has unintended anti-freedom consequences that show the utopia to be rotten and empty.
Huxley’s Brave New World is a classic example. You have a government that controls every aspect of life, down even to selecting (and disabling if necessary) people into a caste system of people based upon their intelligence, educating (conditioning may be a better word) them from birth to accept their caste placement. They ply the populace with consumption, drugs, and sex to keep them happy and docile, and the result is a country largely free of crime and misery. This is all upset when a “savage” from the outside, educated and English-speaking, is introduced to the society. Being an individual and a freethinker, he quickly tires of the life devoid of emotion and value and starts (after the death of his mother) lashing out. The novel ends when John the Savage finds the only escape from the rot that he has left, and hangs himself.
Island is sort of an anti-BNW, in some rather (I would think) deliberate ways. It tells the story of a remote island, Pala, which had closed itself off to the world — an island which correspondingly had little reason for the world to take note. This is rapidly changing, though, as the island is sitting on quite a bit of oil. One journalist shipwrecks on the island (partly tasked by his boss, newspaperman AND oilman, with trying to find a way to exploit that oil) and starts exploring. He finds a populace where everyone seems to be very happy and well adjusted, a society that is well-run but still lightly-governed. The island is heavily informed by buddhist teachings, and uses early childhood conditioning, community families, sex (tantric buddhist variety) and drugs (of the magic smoking mushrooms variety) to expand the understanding of, rather than pacify, the populace. It is a breath of fresh air in some sense where drugs and sex are seen as a cage opener, rather than a cage people are put into. In our reality, many people use things like dry magic mushrooms in much the same way – to connect with their inner selves and their place in the world around them – and also, increasingly, for therapeutic purposes. It is not a society built for consumption, but rather a society built for happiness and self-actualization. The journalist (perhaps best described as a “savage” from civilization) grows enamored with this society, sees what he now understands as rot within his own, and wants to join. *(see below the fold for spoiler)
Island is widely described as Huxley’s counterpoint to Brave New World. It is clear that he sees the same demons (consumerism, a lack of individuality, and a value-less society) and the same fetishes (drugs and sex) in both books, but in Island he sees the impression of positive ethics and values as the difference. He changes the game, using sex and drugs as a way of furthering Understanding, using community family raising not as a way to blunt individuality but a way for children to avoid the parental roullette that often cause them to inherit their parents flaws, and using biological/behavioral understanding to inform educators in the proper ways to help each individual student learn and become self-actualized. I’m not well-steeped in Buddhism, but it appears to be heavily influenced by Buddhist rather than Western thought. The result is a society that, while not perfect, appears to meet the magical middle ground between planning a good outcome without really destroying individuality.
Island paints the picture of a beautiful society, and one that I suspect is a guideline, in the mold of Plato’s Republic**, for his ideal state. From a philosophical perspective I think is definitely something that should be read (although not a plank for any cohesive philosophy), as it contains some practical personal lessons about thought and emotion that many folks might benefit from.
But in another sense, it doesn’t work as a novel. It is a philosophical dialectic much like that of The Republic, and my thought reading throughout the whole aspect was Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged. Very long, and pretty important, but certainly not a page-turning thriller. The novel seems to have very little in the way of plot, the “conflict” takes a far back seat to the philosophy, and the scenes become nothing more than an excuse for philosophical pontificating, not advancing a story. I said after reading it on twitter that from a literary standpoint it was weak and grandstanding, and that it seemed far more like a writer’s first novel than his last, which Island was for Huxley.
As with many books I read, I see there to be value for many readers. But if you go into the book expecting an experience like Brave New World, you’re not going to get it. This is a treatise on humanity and the ideal state, informed by Huxley’s own spiritual and ethical beliefs. As such, it contains useful information on a personal level, to better understand yourself, the society immediately around you, and how you might improve both. It’s not much of a novel, and not something I’d pass off to a friend unless I absolutely knew them to be receptive to this type of book, but it’s worth it for what it is.
* In a final dystopian spark of Huxley, his plan to get his boss access to the oil plays out with a neighboring totalitarian island invading and taking over his newfound paradise, in the name of modernization, progress, and a reform of the buddhism to the new Religion.
** I’m going from memory on The Republic, as it’s been many years since I’ve read it. I might have to go back to it one of these days.