"History is the record of what human beings have been impelled to do by their ignorance and the enormous bumptiousness that makes them canonize their
ignorance as a political or religious dogma." - Aldous Huxley
We are most of us familiar with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
, even without reading it we understand the dystopian connotations of the term
itself. It is what we consider to be a “classic” today. So when I came across it while meandering around the public library, it caught my
attention. Next to Brave New World
was another of Huxley's novels, this one entitled “Island”.
Inside the cover of Island
was a short summary... It said "On the island of Pala--as in the brave new world--science has helped advance the
founders' plans. But, in sharp contrast, those plans have the goal of freeing each person, not enslaving him." I read that and wondered why we've
all heard so much about Brave New World
, but nothing about Island
, which seemed to be Huxley's answer to it.
I checked them both out, because I wanted an answer to this question. I spent that weekend reading, both books were very easy to get into and quick to
read. I want to offer this comparison, with the help of Wikipedia and online resources since I've already returned the books to the library.
Brave New World
Huxley wrote this book in 1931, as satire of other “futurist” books recently published. The story takes place in the year 2540, “the year of our
Ford 632”... they refer to “Ford” instead of “Lord” or “God” throughout the book, and he also mentions “Freud” being another name
for “our Ford”. This is the sort of icon/idol of the age.
The population is stabilized and limited to 2 billion people worldwide, under The World State. Children are produced in “hatcheries” and raised in
“conditioning centers”. There are several different castes of people. The lower castes (Deltas, Gammas, Epsilons) are created in batches of
thousands of identical twins, while the higher castes (Alphas, Betas) are made unique. Their castes determine their entire lives; the lower castes are
made and psychologically programmed for labor of different kinds, while the higher castes are trained for roles with more responsibility and
The children are indoctrinated from birth (if you can even call it birth!) with subliminal messages (mostly in their sleep) appropriate for their
caste. Some of the messages are universal, such as the necessity of consumption (“ending is better than mending”) to support the economy, and that
recreational sex is a social responsibility because “everyone belongs to everyone else”.
Everyone takes “soma” at even the slightest sign of discontent. Often in the book, one character who enjoys solitude and contemplation is advised
to take his soma. This is some sort of hallucinogenic created by the World State as a substitute for religion and philosophy (basically). Soma is used
during “Solidarity Services”, where a dozen citizens of different castes sing hymns together and commune with “our Ford” in a sort of group
hypnosis that ends with an orgy.
Without going too much into the specifics of the plot... two of the “Alpha” characters are discontent (for different reasons) and they share their
complaints with one another. Later in the book, they are both suspected of not being trustworthy in their positions of authority/responsibility and
are brought before the “World Controller” for their local region. (There are 10 World Controllers, each controls one region.)
He tells them they can choose to be exiled on an island of their choice. This, he says, is not a punishment for disobedience, rather it would allow
them some degree of freedom because they would not be able to influence others and disrupt the stability of the World State.
The “Controller” confesses that he was once threatened with exile for scientific research he'd done, but he chose to continue working for the
World State and was trained to be a World Controller. In his position, he censors scientific work, exiles scientists like he once was, and is allowed
access to literature forbidden to the rest of society.
Also, (without going too much into the plot) there is a “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico. On the reservation, the people are protected from the
World State. The culture of the “savages” is a strange mix of native cultures and Christianity. The higher castes of citizens of the World State
are sometimes granted permission to visit the Savage Reservation, I assume to make them thankful for the progress of society.
A young man (the Savage) is brought from the reservation to London and remains there as a sort of experiment to see if he could be assimilated and
what influence (if any) he would have on the people of the World State.
In 1946, Huxley wrote:
If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the Utopian and primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the
possibility of sanity... In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque co-operative. Science and
technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as
though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man's Final End, the unitive knowledge
of immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman. And the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in
which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every
contingency of life being: "How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number
of other individuals, of man's Final End?"
Which brings me to...
There is much less about Island
on Wikipedia to guide me, so I'll have to skim over the PDF version for talking points. The novel was
published in 1962, and it was Huxley's last.
It seems to take place in the mid-20th century, the same era the book was published. A journalist finds himself on the island of Pala after being
shipwrecked while sailing alone. He serves as the reader's eyes, so to speak; as he learns about the island and its people, so do you.
In addition to being a writer, he is often employed by a wealthy industrialist (whom he is related to by marriage, if I remember correctly) to meet
important people and negotiate with them about various business matters. He had been dispatched to meet with the military-dictator of the nearest
'mainland' country to Pala, while visiting for journalistic reasons.
On the island, the writer (Will) discovers a very interesting balance of Western and Eastern cultures. Their civilization evolved when a Scottish
doctor came to save the life of the island's Raja and settled there. The doctor and the Raja then worked together to modernize Pala's civilization
while retaining the society's spiritual foundation.
The people learned and valued various religions and philosophies; they mostly combined Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist ideas. They learned much about
modern science and used technology moderately, so the people could do fulfilling work and also have time for leisure and contemplation. The parrots on
the island are trained to periodically squawk “Attention!” and “Here and now, boys!” and “Karuna!” (Compassion), reminding the people to
focus on the present, seize opportunity, and be compassionate to others and to self.
The island is rich in natural resources (such as oil), but the people of Pala won't sell it and hardly use it. The island has a monarch, but it is
mostly ruled in a democratic way by The Cabinet, The House of Representatives, and The Privy Council (representing the Raja).
In the book, the Raja is dead and his heir is about to come of age to take the throne. His widow, the Rani, was a princess from the nearest mainland
country. She does not like Pala and does not approve of the ways of the Palanese, so she practically raised her son elsewhere (Switzerland, for a
while). Her spiritual beliefs are different, she talks of Theosophy a bit.
Will learns the Rani and her son intend to form an alliance with the military-dictator of her neighboring home, to sell Pala's oil and build the
island's military, which was then completely non-existent.
Will asks to stay on the island for a month, partly because he is genuinely curious about their society, but also because he can make a lot of money
if he secures Pala's oil for his industrialist boss. Throughout the book, he has to grapple with guilt about his self-serving aims.
I don't want to get much into the details of the plot, but the comparison with Brave New World
Reproductive technology is used in both books. In Island
, assisted reproduction is available in the form of artificial insemination. One couple
gave birth to two of their own children and then decided to have another whose father would be a deceased Palanese artist, by artificial insemination.
Having children this way was not compulsory, but if a couple were concerned about a genetic disorder in their families, they would often choose
, where 'family' was completely eradicated, families are very important on Pala; so important that every child has 15-20 of them.
They call it a Mutual Adoption Club. If a child is unhappy with a parent or sibling and their home becomes intolerable, they are allowed and
encouraged to choose another family from among their adoption group.
Sexual relationships seem fairly exclusive and monogamous on the island, in stark contrast to the sexual 'responsibilities' of the World State
citizens. In BNW
, children are instructed to engage in sexual play with one another even as toddlers. On Pala, they practice tantric sex
(“the yoga of love”) and it seems like the teenagers are not discouraged from sex, but taught to understand it as a 'spiritual' activity.
The Palanese have “moksha medicine”, which is a hallucinogen derived from mushrooms on the island. It is not used habitually as a drug, but
moderately as a sort of 'enlightenment facilitator'. They call it “the reality revealer”.
Economically, the island claims to be neither capitalist nor socialist, but rather co-operative. They have a gold-backed currency that enables them to
purchase what they can't produce internally, but they try to use their resources wisely and don't tend to over-consume. Their communal freezer
stores their surplus of perishable food and materials, so little goes to waste.
The system and philosophy of the island is very detailed in the novel, and is transmitted through dialogue between the various characters and Will,
the outsider journalist. I think Huxley must have taken his time (his lifetime) discovering and developing his ideas for this book. It's very well
worth the time it takes to read it.
Which brings me back to contemplate the question I asked myself in the library: “Why do we hear so much about Brave New World
and so little
(or nothing) about Island
?” I think Huxley would be disappointed.
Brave New World wiki
Brave New World full text
Island full PDF
Thank you for reading.