Undoubtedly, a great novel or short story will oftentimes enable its readers to see the world from both fundamentally new and fundamentally unique perspectives. Sometimes, in fact, the effect can be very profound indeed: At their best, for example, the following four novels enable us to question the nature of reality itself. For a truly mind-bending reading experience, it’s difficult to beat these four works of troubled genius.
1. “At the Mountains of Madness” by H.P. Lovecraft
Ostensibly the story of one explorer’s doomed venture into the icy hinterlands of Antarctica during the heady scientific era of the early 20th Century, “At the Mountains of Madness” is really about the limits of human knowledge and consciousness.
With its deft handling of troubled psychological states, it is easy to see why the novel influenced later horror writers like Stephen King: Like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft had a preternatural gift for summoning up feelings of pure dread in his readers. Dealing primarily with the pantheon of ancient gods that Lovecraft referred to as the “Great Old Ones,” “At the Mountains of Madness” is sure to make readers question the world around them. One suspects that H.P. Lovecraft wouldn’t have had it any other way.
2. “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
Never a writer to shirk from sounding the alarm on totalitarian ways of thinking, Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel “Brave New World” is a brilliant indictment of political complacency and governmental surveillance. Less brutal than his one-time student George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Brave New World” is nonetheless the story of a society that has willingly subjugated itself to a powerful dictatorship of the mind.
In the futuristic world that Huxley describes, social engineering has brought about a culture in which the social order is now scientifically determined by birth; conformity here is essentially written into the genes. At its core, however, “Brave New World” should serve as a warning about the way in which our own moral apathy could land us in hot water in the near future if we aren’t carefully. (Sadly, in fact, too many of the novel’s most dire predictions have already come true: Our current obsession with 24-hour televisual entertainment would undoubtedly have made Huxley cringe with disappointment were the author alive today.)
3. “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
In the early 19th Century, the world’s faith in scientific progress was at an all-time high: As the discoveries of scientists like George Stephenson (inventor of the steam-powered locomotive) and Alessandro Volta (inventor of the battery) led the way towards astounding leaps of progress in fields as diverse as engineering, chemistry, and physics, however, a few brave souls wondered whether the worship of progress would unintentionally create serious problems within human society at large.
First published in 1818, “Frankenstein” was essentially author Mary Shelley’s warning to society about its unchecked belief in scientific advancement. As readers, it’s probably best if we go into “Frankenstein” without expectations or preconceived notions about what the story will do: For example, the novel’s famous monster is more eloquent than his counterpart in the horror film genre would have us believe, and the novel’s protagonist Dr. Frankenstein is given much time to consider the folly of creating artificial life in a laboratory.
But at base, “Frankenstein” is really about the way in which we perceive reality: The famous story of an artificially-created monster and its troubled inventor invites us to consider how we view outsiders and whether we are willing to truly accept people who are different from ourselves. Indeed, the most horrific parts of the novel are essentially about the iniquity of bringing a life-form into the world that stands little chance of experiencing happiness. Undoubtedly, it’s a question that scientists working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) will have to grapple with over the next century.
4. “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville
Ostensibly a description of the hunt for a mysterious white whale that wreaks havoc on ships throughout the world’s oceans, Herman Melville’s great novel “Moby-Dick” is in fact primarily concerned with the effects of paranoia and obsession on the human psyche. As readers, we can only watch helplessly as we follow the half-mad whaling captain Ahab undertake his doomed quest to avenge himself on the whale that took his leg.
Like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” however, “Moby-Dick” pulls us into the madness of its primary characters in order to teach us something about the nature of insanity. Isolated on a whaling ship, for example, the crew of the good ship Pequod slowly begin to experience a sort of communal insanity as they venture further out into their voyage: Even the narrator of the book can’t help but feel dragged into the “reality” of Captain Ahab’s doomed mission. Overall, “Moby-Dick” is an incredibly surreal book that reads like something James Joyce would have written had he lived 60 years earlier.
For anyone who enjoys taking their literature with a bit of challenging philosophy in tow, these four novels can really pack a formidable metaphysical punch. The narratives contained within these books can even be life-changing: After reading them, your view of the world might even be fundamentally altered. Truly, that is literature at its best!