Since I recently lost my job, I’ve been able to catch up on my reading. This week I read Aldous Huxley‘s Island. I’ve been a big Huxley fan for a long time, but for whatever reason I had never read his last book until now.
Published in 1962, Island is an absolutely great book about a a journalist’s visit to an island called Pala. Pala is a land inhabited by a peaceful people who are struggling against a militant neighboring nation called Rendang. In a scenario that has become almost cliche today, the rulers of Rendang and their cohorts in the global oil industry have targeted Pala due to it’s bevy of natural resources. If the plot of Island sounds similar to James Cameron’s Avatar, it is because it is.
However, it blows Avatar out of the water.
Island is much more in-depth philosophically than anything done today. Huxley thoroughly describes the religious, educational, and social foundations and philosophies of the people of Pala. Most profound is their hybrid Buddhist-Hindu mindset, which is, like other Huxley novels, enhanced through the use of psychological drugs – sort of how Native Americans use peyote to enhance their religious experience. There is no mention of any other philosophy among the residents of Pala, their communal behavior is guided by more of an overarching mindset than a “religion”- sort of how Islam guided early Muslim communities in the 8th Century. There is no “church” nor “state” on Pala, just a proper way of being and attention given to the present moment.
Island is a culmination of many of the other Huxley books I have read. It follows Huxley’s thoughts on hallucinogenic “oneness” discussed Heaven and Hell, The Doors of Perception, and Brave New World. It also features characters that are stereotypes of religious fanaticism, military dictatorships, consumer lust, and impersonal corporate greed, opposites of the people of Pala, yet traits the Palanise attempt to live alongside.
(Heaven and Hell inspired me to write my first ever philosophical book review. It was that deep. I might have to find that and post it here someday.)
If Island was told today, there would be some insane twist at the end, such as in Avatar when the natives overthrew the soulless exploiters. To be honest, with all the detail Huxley put into describing the Palanise people and the fact that there was no mention of a military confict, I almost expected the journalist, Will Barnaby, to be dreaming his visit to Pala, a la “The Newhart Ending“. But in Huxley’s novel, Barnaby wasn’t dreaming. Like any journalist stuck in a war zone, he could do nothing more than watch the collision of two nations. Island definitely ends with what I call an “Empire Strikes Back” ending – where the good guys don’t win. The antagonists don’t necessarily win either, but they have the advantage.
Huxley often preached about the dangers of power: who has it and how societies exist under it. He believed in decentralization, the power of the individual to make his own decisions, and idea that people could unite in societies under common goals without the need for an aggressive power-hungry government. Those themes are exceedingly evident in Island.
(Check out this 1958 interview between Huxley and CBS mainstay Mike Wallace where Huxley discusses the potential for authoritative governments to take over. Eerie.)
It is fitting that Island is Huxley’s last book before he died in 1963. Huxley intended Island to not just be a story, but a message. A message movies like Avatar touch upon, but lose among their Hollywood glitz and glamor.