Aldous Huxley – Island Book Review

I found this book in my sci-fi pile. Written in 1962 and possibly the last book by Aldous Huxley, Island is a far cry from Brave New World.
It tries to mix Buddhism and English Colonialism and philosophy into a stew that just doesn’t taste good. It’s too contrived and the subject at hand is an utopia in the form of the Palanese society – who embrace modern science and technology to improve medicine and nutrition, but have rejected widespread industrialization.

“We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.”

This was an interesting book. I don’t think I’ll re-read it and I’m not even sure I liked it yet. I’ve been thinking on how to rate it for over a week now and I’m still struggling. The writing on its own is pretty amazing. The metaphors in the text are abundant and the descriptions of the island and its people are great.

“One third, more or less, of all the sorrow that the person I think I am must endure is unavoidable. It is the sorrow inherent in the human condition, the price we must pay for being sentient and self-conscious organisms, aspirants to liberation, but subject to the laws of nature and under orders to keep on marching, through irreversible time, through a world wholly indifferent to our well-being, toward decrepitude and the certainty of death. The remaining two thirds of all sorrow is homemade and, so far as the universe is concerned, unnecessary.”


There is a debate on how seemingly pacifist people can deal with invaders. There is talk about Faith, Economic Progress, Philosophy and Natural Evolution which makes this short book a bit of a tall order to try to mash all of these concepts in and make it work. It tries so hard to be a sequel to “A Brave New World” that it forgets how to be a book. And how to make sense.

“We shall be permitted to live on this planet only for as long as we treat all nature with compassion and intelligence.”

The main problem I have with “Island” is its complete departure from the novel form. And this issue is not problematic in and of itself, but when the departure is UNINTERESTING, it becomes a problem.

There is no palpable tension, no recognizable antagonist, and absolutely, no climax. If anything, the best part of the book is when the main character, Will Barnaby, takes the “moksha-medicine” and goes into a psychedelic trance. Oh, I won’t ruin the end for you…its predictability is so utterly bland, you’ll want to keep turning every page.

Ultimately, if you’re into Tantra or Buddhism or utopian novels, this may be your book.  While all dystopias and utopias are comments on society, and almost all utopia/dystopia authors have an agenda which they would like the reader to come to after reading the work, most do so in a more subtle manner. There is nothing subtle in “Island” which is my biggest problem with it. While I agree with many of the ideas shown in the story, I felt that Huxley didn’t present them, but preached them.

There are some birds on the island which call to attention and preach the Indian philosophy of living in the present.

“Attention. Attention. Here and now boys. Here and now”

When the protagonist asks why they teach the birds these specific words, the answer is

“Well… …That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”

“Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there. If I only knew who in fact I am, I should cease to behave as what I think I am; and if I stopped behaving as what I think I am, I should know who I am. What in fact I am, if only the Manichee I think I am would allow me to know it, is the reconciliation of yes and no lived out in total acceptance and the blessed experience of Not-Two. In religion all words are dirty words. Anybody who gets eloquent about Buddha, or God, or Christ, ought to have his mouth washed out with carbolic soap.”

“That’s what the human brain is there for—to turn the chaos of given experience into a set of manageable symbols. Sometimes the symbols correspond fairly closely to some of the aspects of the external reality behind our experience; then you have science and common sense. Sometimes, on the contrary, the symbols have almost no connection with external reality; then you have paranoia and delirium. More often there’s a mixture, part realistic and part fantastic; that’s religion.”

Island reads like an LSD trip and for all we know it was, Huxley was well known for his use of LSD and other psychedelics. Basically all the fascinating ideas behind the Palanese society get overshadowed by the zen psychobabble. Pala is Buddhist island in Asia, community based on nonwestern values and some very original ideas about child rearing and education. The island’s politics and social dynamics are very interesting and thought provoking, but they get overshadowed by the numerous yogas and moksha (their version of psychodelics) taking. It’s like talking to an uber mellowed out completely stoned hippie. And it’s boring, at the risk of sounding like a philistine, the book mostly bored me. It’s very much a product of its time, the 60s were all about experimentation, pacifism and zen. And it is an interesting book, possibly even an important book as a work of utopian fiction and a representative of its time, but it’s nowhere near the magnum opus that Brave New World is.



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