Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World Revisited was written thirty years after Brave New World. It is a non-fiction work, essentially a comparison between the predictions of the original science fiction novel and developments in the real world. In the novel, the world population is kept at an ideal number by means of eugenics. In the real world we see an ever encroaching trend towards over-population. Huxley discusses how we have become ever more skilled at “death control” (living longer and healthier lives), but we have no corresponding birth control. The forces of predation, sickness and natural disaster, which keep the rest of the animal kingdom in balance, are having less and less effective against humans, due to our own ingenuity. Related to overpopulation is the problem of over-organisation, where a human being becomes nothing more than as a cog in the wheel of society; the human exists only to serve a greater social organism, whereas the social organism is really no more than a social organisation. Integral to the book is the tension between anarchism and totalitarianism; too much freedom versus too little.

A major theme of the book is mind-manipulation in its various subtle forms. Hitler comes under the spotlight, in particular how he made his propaganda successful using fervent emotion, reinforced through repetition. This is contrasted with propaganda that addresses the intellect. In our advertising-saturated lives, the chapter “The Arts of Selling” is more relevant today than ever. Huxley brings to light how we are exploited by those who sell products by tapping into our fears and wishes. An excerpt from the chapter “Brainwashing”:

The fact that strong negative emotions tend to heighten suggestibility and so facilitate a change of heart had been observed and exploited long before the days of Pavlov. As Dr. William Sargant has pointed out in his enlightening book, Battle for the Mind, John Wesley’s enormous success as a preacher was based upon an intuitive understanding of the central nervous system. He would open his sermon with a long and detailed description of the torments to which, un­less they underwent conversion, his hearers would un­doubtedly be condemned for all eternity. Then, when terror and an agonizing sense of guilt had brought his audience to the verge, or in some cases over the verge, of a complete cerebral breakdown, he would change his tone and promise salvation to those who believed and repented. By this kind of preaching, Wesley converted thousands of men, women and children. Intense, pro­longed fear broke them down and produced a state of greatly intensified suggestibility. In this state they were able to accept the preacher’s theological pro­nouncements without question. After which they were reintegrated by words of comfort, and emerged from their ordeal with new and generally better behavior patterns ineradicably implanted in their minds and nervous systems.

Later chapters are entitled “Chemical Persuasion” (the use of drugs to control a population), “Subconscious Persuasion” (the subliminal technique of persuasion by association), “Hypnopaedia” (hypnotic suggestibility). The book closes with a forward-looking discussion on education.

This small book is a treasure-trove of rational information to chew over, for anyone who wants to have a more conscious existence – that is, to be more aware of the forces controlling our lives, and thus more able to make our own choices. In today’s world, we have the unfortunate phenomenon of the paranoid conspiracist, who learns the very real nature of the information presented here, through “researchers” like David Icke and Alex Jones, but then he ends up believing that there’s a secret “Illuminati” who are trying to bring about a New World Order – an ancient elistist brotherhood who are actually the Biblical Nephilim in disguise, or reptilian shapeshifters from another dimension. If you wonder how people can get so carried away, that’s because it begins with a genuine grasping of truth leading to an awakening out of a hypnotic trance of sorts. Unfortunately, not all are up to the task of maintaining a sharp critical perspective on information, and they fall prey to the more outlandish claims of fear-mongers and sensation-seekers.

Brave New World Revisited represents the best of the modern “truth movement” without the bullshit. A book to treasure and to read again and again.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

I’ve reviewed a number of Christian books in the past, but this is the first one I’ve reviewed from the perspective of no longer being a Christian. I consider “getting out of your comfort zone” to be one of the most important aspects of any genuine truth-seeking – reading books that do not defend your worldview as a means of challenging yourself. Consequently, I’ve read books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, etc. And I think it’s no bad thing to revisit the Christian religion a couple of years after abandoning it, to determine afresh whether it ought to have any bearing on my life.

I appreciate Lewis more than most Christian writers because he is, at heart, a philosopher rather than a preacher. He uses the tool of rational deducation over the tool of “Thus saith the Lord!” Unfortunately I found myself having strong disagreements with his stance, almost from the get-go. He posits an argument for the existence of a personal God based on the moral nature of man, but the first thread he hangs this viewpoint on his that man is different from the animals. I see this difference as a difference of degree, not a difference of kind. We are more intelligent than dogs, and thus we possess much more complex behaviour patterns, but I don’t see how this in any way classifies us as a special category on our own, when we are, frankly, mammals. Lewis takes this extremely tenuous thread that “man is different” and builds a complex philosophy about the nature of good and evil. He takes our concepts of fairness and judgement and instantly transposes these onto God without the merest pause. What I noticed, however, is that he is making God in man’s image – taking that infinite, eternal “something” beyond space and time and projecting our human natures onto it. Whether we ought do that is an essay in itself, but Lewis simply ploughs on unaware of the vast assumptions he is making. What you end up with is a whole house built on a couple of flimsy stilts, ready to topple with the merest breeze.

In fairness, at times Lewis communicated some valuable insights, particularly about morality, which seems to be a favourite topic of the author. These insights actually made the book a worthwhile read. Other times, the value in reading it was in scrutinizing the Christian worldview, noting the carefree leaps in logic that Christians make, the notions that hold no real rational weight. It was amazing to behold a man who could on the one hand be so studious about logic, and on the other so fanciful about the devil’s influence on the human mind.

On the subject of “faith” (the only subject that the book devotes two chapters to) there is not a single mention of the vast unthinking herds of the world, Christian or otherwise, to whom faith comes as naturally as breathing. How can anyone propose to talk about faith but leave this glaring black hole? It’s obvious to me that the pews of the world are not filled with people who come to their beliefs through reason, but mainly by people who fall in line with whatever belief system their locale dictates. Anyone who talks at length about faith should at least devote some space to a discussion of “groupthink,” the herd mentality. A discussion of that kind is, of course, damning to religion, exposing it as a lamentable triumph of faith over reason.

Regarding the history of Christianity, I don’t think it can be seriously debated that horrendous things were done in the name of Christ. I was therefore alarmed to see Lewis jumping to the defence of what I see as the terrible consequences of men who sacrifice their minds to religious authority and, as a result, end up commiting atrocities. I could hardly believe my eyes that an attitude of this nature was still around as recent as the 1950s, when the book was published (emphasis mine):

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [in moral viewpoints], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, “Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches [today] is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did – if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather – surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knkowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there.

The closing chapters of the book leave philosophy behind and are chiefly concerned with explaining the Christian view of redemption: God as a triune being, Jesus’ sacrificial death, etc. These chapters were largely irrelevant to me because I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with mankind as it is. But to those who believe themselves to be evil and in need of salvation from a divine Judge, they will probably see this material as profound, as I once thought, before I figured out the lies on which the view is built.

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

This short book came about as a result of Aldous Huxley performing a one-off experiment with the the psychotropic drug mescaline. Mescaline is derived from the peyote cactus and was (and is) widely used by the Native Americans in their religious practice as a means of seeing beyond the physical world. Apparently they used to suck on the cactus root to produce the effects. Although it’s illegal today, it’s apparently quite a benign drug. The book claims there are no addictive qualities – the user feels no need to use the drug subsequently – and no toxicity issues. Oddly, according to Wikipedia, a concession has been made to Native Americans, for whom mescaline remains legal. Tsk-tsk – a little favouritism there.

Huxley is best known for having penned the classic science fiction novel Brave New World. I’ve never read it, but it’s one of those novels I’ll definitely get around to. The Doors of Perception caught my attention because of Huxley’s standing and my personal interest in gaining a better understanding of human consciousness.

After taking the drug, Huxley reports staring at a table leg and being utterly absorbed in the brilliance of its form. He was able to walk around, and yet his vision was unconcerned with things like depth and distance. Looking at a flower evoked a kind of timeless contemplation about the flower’s “significance.” The book continues with information about how Huxley felt when being shown a series of paintings.

Interestingly, Huxley discusses the human body as a limiter, using the term “Mind at Large” for the full magnitude of what we are, i.e. we know everything. This is exactly the same concept I was introduced to though the writings of David Icke, only in different language. Icke would say we are are all collectively Infinite Consciousness, and the body is just a vehicle that allows us to experience physical reality. Huxley theorises that by the use of mescaline, the valve between mind and Mind at Large is loosened, allowing more of Mind at Large to come through. He talks about a feeling of timeless contemplation that caused him to be unconcerned about matters of physical life. This is in keeping with the understanding I embrace, that beyond this physical realm, with its illusions of separateness and time, there is a single collective consciousness existing in one eternal present.

This is the second time I have been surprised by the concept of “oneness” (or something close to it) cropping up unexpectedly in my reading material. It also happened recently when I read Upton Sinclair’s Mental Radio, where he theorises that a collective human consciousness is what allows telepathy to be possible.

One of the effects of mescaline on the brain is the inhibition of sugar. This got me wondering if the true reason behind the religious practice of fasting (something I never understood when I was a Christian) was to achieve an altered state of consciousness that would allow the person to get in contact with the realm beyond the physical – the divine, in other words.

The Doors of Perception was an intriguing study that helped provide a rational basis for ideas that I believe in through intuition, i.e. we are all one consciousness and the physical world is just a frequency that we perceive through the five senses. There is far more going on that what we see, and we are far more than what we think we are.

The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

A mysterious misty spray drifts across the sea, colliding with our protagonist, Scott, while he’s out on his boat. He thinks nothing of it until he begins noticing his diminishing height: one seventh of an inch every day without fail. The premise is very much a in keeping a noticeable trend in 1950s science fiction. It was the era of oversized or undersized monsters and mutants, from the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and the gigantic ants of Them!, to the microscopic adventurers of Fantastic Voyage.

The idea of shrinking a person to a few centimetres in height is one you can have a lot of fun with as a storyteller. The scope of unique situations you can put your protagonist in is vast, as evidenced by an entire TV series, Land of the Giants being devoted to the idea. But I suspect no one has done it better than Matheson.

I’ve heard that Matheson originally structured the events of the novel in a completely linear fashion, from 6 feet to zero, then later restructured them so that he was able to tell two stories side by side, hopping back and forth in time. The first story is all about how Scott copes with people’s attitudes to him while his height diminishes. The second begins with Scott trapped in the basement, only a few centimetres tall and presumed dead, and tells the tale of his struggle to survive in that environment against such adversaries as food out of reach and a black widow spider. The two sides of the novel are quite different in tone, and readers will probably have a favourite depending on their taste. For me, my preference was the former.

We see Scott struggling to maintain a sexual relationship with his wife when he is conscious of becoming more like a boy than a man. We see him going for a walk at night and offered a lift by a drunken paedophile. We see him defenceless against the bullying of a gang of teenagers. We see his own daughter defying his fatherly authority because of his size. We see his wife unconsciously talking down to him like boy. We see him degenerating to the level of peeping tom to a teenage girl. In all of his suffering there are a few moments of relief, one of which is a brief but touching relationship with a dwarf. I only have vague memories of the movie adaptation of this novel, but I’m pretty sure much of this stuff never made it in (it has always been the case that you can get away with more in books than you can in films). That material was so much more interesting to me than reading about Scott finding inventive ways to climb gigantic tables, etc. Although that side of the story was certainly fascinating, too.

Having read Matheson’s I Am Legend recently, I’m noticing how he works. He takes an essentially ridiculous notion and drops a totally believable three-dimensional character into the middle of it. The novel then becomes the story “What would you really do, if this were happening to you?” And Matheson has a real knack for it. I can’t help picturing him lying on the floor of his basement, looking along the ground with his eye, imagining himself as Scott. When reading the novel, I lost count of the times that I read something and thought in amazement, “I never would have imagining seeing the world like that.” Matheson’s observations were so perceptive.

However, I have to question the value in the author devoting such creative energy to a concept that is, at its heart, daft. A better way to phrase the question is this: “Is there something more to The Incredible Shrinking Man than mere b-movie fodder?” When I thought about this, the answer was yes. The novel is, intentionally or not, an apt metaphor for disability. It’s a tale that motivates us to empathise with those whose bodies have betrayed them, those who struggle to be seen as normal or equal to the rest of us.

Despite all the good things I’m saying about the novel, oddly I found it difficult to keep on reading. I’m not sure why. Possibly because the tiny print on my old paperback annoyed me; maybe because I remembered not liking the ending from the movie. Either way, I’m glad I made it to the end. It’s a story with great depth that I’m not likely to forget.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that hasn’t so much wiped out humanity as changed it. By day, the city belongs to him. He is, for all practical purposes, completely alone – free to roam the concrete jungle, foraging for food supplies, equipment for his house, and entertainment to quell the loneliness. But come nightfall, they come out.

Who they are depends on whether you are most familiar with the original 1954 novel written by Richard Matheson, or one of its three film adaptations. Yes, three! I Am Legend was first filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price. This film remains the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which is no surprise since the screenplay was written by Matheson himself, albeit under a psuedonym. Matheson didn’t want his name associated with the movie because of some changes to the script demanded by the producers. The creatures in this movie are like George Romero’s zombies with just enough brains to speak. Romero himself cites this film as influential in making Night of the Living Dead. The creatures are called vampires, and vampires they are, except for the lack of fangs – possibly a budgetary restriction. But they can’t stand sunlight, crosses, and can be killed with a stake through the heart, just as tradition states. Matheson’s novel features all that plus the fangs and a lot more agility.

In 1971 I Am Legend was remade as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. This time, the only vampiric trait the creatures possess is an aversion to sunlight. They are much more humanlike in terms of their rationality – they’re not interested in drinking your blood – although they’ve been transformed into black-clothed religious zealots with a hatred of technology. To them, Robert Neville epitomises everything that led to the destruction of the world. Matheson, as you can guess, was not involved in this adaptation. Although The Omega Man departs greatly from the original story, it’s still a worthwhile film. It served as my introduction to the novel. I first saw it as a child, and it was a very memorable experience.

In 2008 I Am Legend was made yet again, this time keeping its original name, with Will Smith in the title role. A massive budget went into this adaptation, and it shows. The city is fabulously deserted, decaying and overgrown, thanks to the wonders of CGI. This time the creatures are exclusively computer generated. In stark contrast to the staggering zombies of the first movie, these are fearsome, frenzied killing machines, scarier than a lion bearing down on you. Again, it’s far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it remains my favourite of the three movies for its portrayal of Robert Neville, his loneliness, his desperation, his struggles, his griefs. The director really had his head screwed on. Will Smith’s natural talent for looking cool is subdued and we are treated to a movie experience where substance wins over style.

Sadly, none of the movies bar the first has embraced the courage of the novel’s startling climax. The novel’s ending (as well as much of the content) is so different that I would gladly encourage viewers to watch both The Omega Man and I Am Legend before reading the novel. It might even enhance your reading experience, because you will be saying, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.” However, save The Last Man on Earth till later, because that movie is a 95% copy of the book.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I want to share a couple of examples of what makes Matheson’s writing so good. In the story, Robert Neville has fortified his house against the enemy. He lives every day in isolaton and every night listening to the mocking cries of the undead outside his door. And then one morning, an unusual visitor shows up …

For an hour he [Robert Neville] wandered around the neighborhood on trembling legs, searching vainly, calling out every few moments, “Come on, boy, come on.”

At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.

And then, when Neville manages to lure the dog into his presence with food, he is fearful of scaring it away again …

But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.

As you can see, Matheson has a talent for both empathy and artistry. I think I’m getting a feel for the way he works. He will take a ridiculous notion that has no place in reality (be it vampires here, or a shrinking man, from another of his novels), then he will throw into the scenario characters that are totally realistic. Matheson gives you the impression that he has thought long and hard about what it would be like to be in a situation like Robert Neville’s. I Am Legend is the tale of a real man in the midst of the fantastic. Zero melodrama. It’s a short novel, barely more than a hundred and twenty pages, but it’s a more rich reading experience than many a five-hundred-page tome.

Not many novels have been made into movies three times. The fact that this one has is testament to how good it is. One of the first post-apocalyptic novels, and still one of the best.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I’ve been putting this review off, because I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. I knew I liked this novel, liked it a lot, but I couldn’t figure out why I liked it. The book has certain traits that, at face value, are going to look like negatives. For one, the drama is so mundane. It’s the tale of several consecutive days in the life of a 1950s boarding school student, right after he gets the news that he has been expelled. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, goes from place to place across New York, meeting various people in an effort to kill time, because he’s determined not to head home and face his parents before they’ve had a chance to hear the bad news and simmer down for a couple of days. Nothing earth-shattering happens during those few days. The highest dramatic point is when Holden foolishly hires a prostitute, then gets bullied by her pimp over payment. Holden isn’t even a particularly likable character at times. By his own admission, he is a habitual liar, and frequently enjoys spinning a yarn to those he converses with.

So, what’s to like? Well, despite Holden’s conversational lying, the narrative itself is brutally honest. It’s written in the first person – Holden writing a journal at the request of a psychiatrist after the events of the novel. The most interesting aspect of the story is in following his state of mind. Holden is both capable of youthful exuberance and depression to the point of wishing for death. I felt he was an honest portrait of the turbulence of teenage life. Although his was a lot more turbulent than mine, I could still relate to some of what I was reading, and I think perhaps that’s where my fascination with this novel lies. There were also some heartwarming moments, particularly the scenes with Holden and his kid sister Phoebe.

I was surprised to learn that The Catcher in the Rye has had a rocky road from its publication in the 1950s to the present day. The book has been banned here and there over the years. I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about. Not only did the book not strike me as harmful, I would go as far as saying that it might be the sort of thing that would help a depressed reader away from a suicidal tendency.

One of my favourite reads of 2007.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

Kip is a young teenage boy obsessed with getting to the moon. It seems like an unreachable dream until one day a soap company announces a slogan competition with the grand prize of – you guessed it – a trip to the moon. I should state that the novel is set in the future, where mankind has already set up a base on the moon, and travel there is common. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that this is one possible future, from the point of view of the 1950s (when the book was written). Because it actually feels like you’re reading something set in the past. The effect is quite charming, really.

Kip goes to outrageous lengths to win the competition, and ends up coming runner-up. His prize? A genuine used space-suit. When he gets it home, he becomes obsessed with fixing all the faults with it, so that it works just like it did when it was originally up there on the moon. Heinlein goes into great detail on the scientific aspects of the suit. You might think this would make boring reading, but I found it quite stimulating – even more so, when you consider that the book was written when lunar landings hadn’t yet been attempted.

The weakness of the book, for me, comes a little later, from the point where Kip has his very own close encounter with an alien civilisation. The reader is treated to various bug-eyed and tentacled creatures that simply have no place in the imagination of anyone who thinks seriously about what real aliens might possibly be like. And the problem isn’t just the physical descriptions. The aliens’ characters are pretty one-dimensional. There’s the fuzzy, furry, friendly, caring face. The multi-tentacled, angry, evil, we-will-conquer-the-galaxy race. The emotionless, obstinate, we-are-in-charge race. I remember trying to read this novel about fifteen years ago, and as I recall, I stopped when all the creatures started to crawl out of the woodwork. This time I pushed on through, but was slightly disappointment at how the story evolved.

It’s not all bad. The best parts for me were scenes like Kip on board a spaceship trying to walk in low-gravity and slipping all over the place (again, this is made extra special because man had never been to the moon at the time of writing). This is the stuff that made the book interesting. The closing chapters are also fairly dramatic. The book visits the theme of Earth under the scrutiny of alien eyes, in a similar but not identical vein to one of its contemporary films, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Children are much more forgiving of one-dimensional bug-eyed aliens than adults, and I have to remember that this is a children’s book. I can see young science geeks loving it.