I just finished reading “Island” by Aldous Huxley. Huxley is (of course) the author of “A Brave New World” – and “Island” continues along that tradition — sort of…
“Island” was Aldous Huxley’s final novel, and according to him his most important. I suppose a famous writer (I won’t say great, those are not the same thing) at the end of his life lets his guard down as to how the reader feels about his work. Perhaps he has been convinced everything that flows from his pen onto paper is the work of the golden gods and need not respond to any sort of form. Why should it? Guaranteed a publisher, content in his position, and assured readership – he can finally dispense with the niceties of sweat and blood in trying to tell a good story and – if you are a political writer – you can just write out your opinions.
That’s what Huxley did in “Island”. The setting for this book is a lost pacific island where the master-planners of society have built their utopia; how they try (and ultimately fail) in keeping it pristine and isolated from the rest of the world; and how Will Faranby – a journalist – experiences this.
The plot of the story, after perfunctorily placing Will on the island of Pala, basically consists of Will walking around getting endless lectures on how the Palanese organized their society. Children are shared around; religion is not banned but not encouraged; Buddhist ideas are preferred; a special drug called makshe which is basically some kind of mushroom hallucinogen keeps folks calm; sex is encouraged, etc. The book is replete with extensive diatribes about western consumerism, carbon economy, rapacious corporatism, and any other bugbear that might inspire adolescent reactionary fervor: Leninist Marxism without the conflict; Stalinism without the Gulag. (Incidentally the story could have been made slightly better if it had become literary fiction, delving deeply into the thoughts of Will as he was challenged in his thinking. That would have been conflict which might have added depth to the tale and character to what is in fact a colorless cardboard cutout of a protagonist. Alternatively it could have had epic descriptions of the Island’s beauty, which would have made it exotic. Didn’t have those either…)
This book was unreadable.
The book was as unreadable as Huxley’s Palanese society was unlivable. Because it was a society in which there was no wonder; nor was there any glory (principles which are also missing from communist utopianism, a project which Huxley was said to have hated but after reading “Island” I’m not so sure he did. This book could have been written by Hugo Chavez). The search for wonder and glory, the hallmarks of western civilization – of progress and advancement and philosophy and science. Universal basic incomes, parents who share their children, societies where there is no competition (and hence no good conflict — yes there is good conflict) and in which the embers of significance die out not in a bloody gulag but tired in that overweight way, sitting quiet in a La-Z-Boy – none of these do greatness inspire.
Platform pieces are rarely any good. When the ulterior motive of the author is to manipulate you into reading what you hope is a story which will make your heart sing and you find yourself hooked to the nozzle of a fire hose while you rapidly expand with half-baked ideas and hardly-thought-out recipes for utopia, you know you’ve got a bad one. “Island” is a bad one.
I would be more forgiving of Huxley if this was his first book, not his last.