The past few weeks I’ve looked back at some young adult works, but this week I thought I’d go in a completely different direction with a book I reread every few years just because it’s so profound and so thought-provoking I like to be reminded of what it has to say, and, like any great book, I find something new in it every time around. It’s Aldous Huxley’s Island, his final novel, published in 1962. He died November 22nd, 1963, and an interesting thing about Huxley is he, John. F. Kennedy, and C.S. Lewis all died within a few hours of each other.
Anyway you may have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in school, unless you got behind on your assignments, in which case now would be a good chance to catch up because it’s still not too late, and if you did you remember that there are basically two worlds: the hyper-technological Utopia, where everything’s ordered and regulated, and an outside that’s essentially a Native American community, home to Huxley’s “Savage”, John, who finds he’s not happy in either world. It was first published in 1932, but in a preface to a 1947 edition–fifteen years after the first and fifteen years before Island–Huxley thought he’d made a mistake. He said,
If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the utopian and the primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity — a possibility already actualized, to some extent, in a community of exiles and refugees from the Brave New World, living within the borders of the Reservation.
He would, in a sense, rewrite Brave New World—Island is a book about the possibility of sanity in a crazy world, and exactly what it would look like. It follows Will Farnaby, a writer who’s working for an oil baron. The oil baron would love to get access to a “forbidden” island called Pala, which has rich oil deposits, but is off-limits to outsiders. Farnaby deliberately wrecks his boat on the island–nearly killing himself. The book opens with Farnaby regaining consciousness as he hears a mynah bird yelling “Attention! Attention!” All the mynah birds on the island have been taught to say that and also “Here and now, boys, here and now,” in a regular call to remind people to be mindful of the world around them.
Farnaby is rescued, treated in a hospital, and learns about Pala’s peculiar fusion of East and West–how it’s drawn on the best of all worlds to create what is the most stable, civilized, and happy place on Earth. It’s not a false Utopia–it’s a genuinely cooperative society. Huxley’s novel offers a pretty thorough blueprint of how a society that benefits everyone equally would look and work. Children are raised by their parents but with the help of the community. If a kid breaks a lamp she has a safe place to go until her parents cool down, and if the parents need a little time they have other families who can help. Adults cycle through different jobs, giving everybody an understanding of what everybody else does. Sex is private but not shameful. Medicine focuses on the body and the mind. Will Farnaby arrives empty handed but with an enormous load of psychological baggage, and a lot of it is lifted by simple human decency.
Huxley also–and here’s a major spoiler–shows just how easily it could completely fall apart.
It’s not an optimistic book, but every time I reread it I get sucked in by what a great place Pala is that I forget it can’t last. And maybe there is a glimmer of hope in it. If the “perfect” society didn’t fall apart it would probably stagnate, with all its people becoming mere lillies of the field in a mindless utopia. Maybe, though, there’s a third way.