Are we living in a brave new world, similar to the one imagined by Aldous Huxley in his novel of that name, surrounded by horror and injustice yet sufficiently distracted by the pleasures on offer to think ourselves happy and the world around us reasonable enough? Perhaps…

Published in 1932, set in A.F. (After Ford) 632, AD 2540 on our Gregorian calendar, Brave New World was written after Huxley had spent time in the United States. On one level, it can be read as a satire of the way of life he found there, highlighting in particular a population increasingly obsessed by mass consumption and popular culture; unsurprisingly, as a man of erudition on a burgeoning spiritual quest, Huxley found this sort of ‘progress’ distasteful. His fears seem well founded in light of America’s subsequent success in exporting these values.

The book opens in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, an enormous eerie building in which human beings of differing castes are produced, ranging from a few Alpha types, bred to assume positions of power and responsibility in society, to lowly Epsilons, mass-produced beings conditioned to be suited to, and unquestioningly accept, lives of manual drudgery. The atmosphere in the plant is redolent of our own high-tech industries, where production is highly automated and human beings are perhaps enslaved by, rather than in control of, their means of production. Since reproduction is now out of the hands of individuals and under state supervision, sex, usually fuelled in the book by “sex-hormone chewing-gum”, becomes purely recreational and there’s no sense of relationships developing between partners. Monogamy is seen as perverse. The concept of family ceases to exist. Other recreations include Obstacle Golf, a version of the game that uses more perishable equipment than the game we know in order to boost consumption, and the Feelies, an enhanced cinema experience with storylines that serve to strengthen loyalty to the state and discourage existential self-examination. The system also promotes the use of soma, a trippy, bliss-delivering, comedown-free drug, as a means of nullifying any unpleasant feelings.

A discussion between Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe, and the Savage, his antagonist, who was born outside the World State and becomes a kind of celebrity when he arrives there, forms the philosophical crux of the novel. Unlike the other characters, the Savage isn’t conditioned and controlled by the state and has notions of God and, rather strangely, has read and enjoys quoting from many of Shakespeare’s plays. Mond explains that “[his] civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness” and that exposure to art and religion would threaten social stability, something prized above all else. The Savage retorts, “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” Mond replies laconically that he’s welcome to these things, as well as “the right to grow old and ugly and impotent” and “the right to have syphilis or cancer”, human concerns and conditions that the World State has succeeded in either mitigating or eliminating altogether. Unhappily, a short time after this conversation, the Savage, unable to resist the brave new world’s loose sexual mores, becomes involved in an orgy and, guilt-ridden, takes his own life.

This novel reflects, antithetically, Huxley’s preoccupation with ways of making the world a better place, his mistrust of large organisations, his concern about the dangers of losing touch with the natural world, and his belief that real progress is progress in charity, more so than technological advance.

He returns to these themes in his last novel, Island, which was published in 1962 and is a utopian counterpoint to Brave New World’s dystopia. If Brave New World depicts a society in which stability is enforced through dictatorial means, Island describes a self-contained world that functions successfully by foregrounding compassion, cooperation, consent and the search for spiritual enlightenment. The flora and fauna of the island, which is named Pala, are managed sustainably, and their places in the order of things are fully respected. The human population is kept constant, thus avoiding a Malthusian disaster, through the use of freely available birth control alongside sexual restraint, as embodied in the yoga of love, Maithuna. As in Brave New World, artificial insemination and selective breeding are practised: parents might decide to have a child naturally or choose IVF using sperm from a bank on the island that holds samples donated by worthy antecedents. Children are raised by their parents but are likely to spend time, particularly if things are difficult at home, with a number of other families selected through a series of mutual adoption clubs.

The ethics and practices that dominate life on the island were established a few generations prior to the action of the novel by the then Raja, a Mahayanan Buddhist, and a Scottish doctor, Andrew MacPhail, who came to Pala to attend to its leader, who was suffering from a life-threatening facial tumour. Using mesmerism, the doctor successfully operates on the Raja and subsequently becomes his chief adviser. The state they found, its basis described in the Raja’s book Notes on What’s What, and on What it Might be Reasonable to Do About What’s What, reflects the two men’s backgrounds and beliefs, being a mixture of practical utilitarianism and Buddhist spirituality. Faith in the value of living in the moment and the search for spiritual enlightenment through meditation form the cornerstones of life on Pala. Religious practice, the search for an immanent god, oneness and clarity, is aided by the infrequent use of moksha-medicine, a hallucinogenic fungus.

This happy equilibrium is threatened by the self-styled “professional execution watcher”, Will Farnaby, journalist and fixer, who engineers his appearance on Pala by shipwreck in order to help his boss, Joe Aldehyde, a powerful tycoon, position himself favourably within the queue of “motorized and television-addicted” outsiders seeking to exploit Pala’s rich mineral reserves, in particular its oil. Any assault on Pala will come from the neighbouring state Rendang-Lobo and its leader, military dictator Colonel Dipa, using nebulous claims of sovereignty as an excuse and backed by a chosen oil company. The soon-to-be Raja, Murugan, and his mother the Rani, both of whom espouse Western consumerist values and have spent much of their lives away from the island, are in cahoots with Dipa and are prepared to sacrifice their fellow islanders’ way of life for material gain.

Will injures himself climbing up a cliff face immediately after arriving on Pala and is rescued and taken in by the island’s inhabitants. Dr Robert MacPhail, the grandson of Dr Andrew, treats the newcomer, gives him a copy of Notes on What’s What and invites him to stay for a month in order to see how life on the island works. The story follows Will on a tour around various aspects of the island, such as its temples and schools, and traces his gradual rejection of his past life, and his increasing spirituality and self-awareness, culminating in his refusal to help, at great personal cost, with the invasion and takeover of the island’s resources. The book is deeply pessimistic and ends with the arrival of Dipa’s soldiers, gunshots, and Murugan’s loudhailer announcements declaring the formation of a new United Kingdom of Rendang and Pala. The islanders who are pacifists have no means to resist.

Unlike Brave New World, which Huxley wrote with his tongue firmly in his cheek, Island is a profoundly serious book that can be seen as his manifesto. We might ask whether, on the evidence of these two novels, Huxley is a visionary, a prophet, an artist, who still has something to tell us about the world we live in today.

I would argue that, if anything, his observations have become increasingly pertinent. His detailing of eugenics, a topic rendered taboo for much of the 20th century by the Nazis, mirrors our current preoccupation with so-called genetic engineering. Both books also highlight the importance of personal, spiritual development in a changing and sometimes confusing world. They condemn the vapidity of consumer societies, pointing out the high and permanent price that this behaviour demands of our environment. I am sure Huxley, had he been alive today, would have been saddened but unsurprised by the damage we’ve done to our planet and the all-too-likely disastrous further consequences that human-made climate change will ensure.

Jonathan Walpole is a writer and academic interested in periods of ferment.