December Books 2) Erewhon

2) Erewhon, by Samuel Butler

Read this on my Palm T|X, thanks to the Project Gutenberg e-text. It’s a classic lost world/utopia satire, first published in 1870 (though this is the revision of thirty years later). The writing is stodgily Victorian in places, but it is enlivened by Butler’s naïvely devout narrator, determined (on the basis of no evidence provided to the reader) that the citizens of Erewhon are the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and committed to converting them to Christianity by exporting them to Queensland.

One of his more overt targets is the Victorian attitude to criminality and morality: in Erewhon, crimes are not punished, but criminals must submit themselves to the attentions of the “straightener”; meanwhile the physically ill are tried and imprisoned. In polite society, since illness is effectively a taboo, people pretend to be suffering from the (presumed moral) ailment of alcoholism rather than admit that they have a slight cold. The tragets here are both the general priggishness of Victorian society and perhaps also the classical school of criminology.

More famously, of course, he has an Erewhonian philosopher predicting the Rise Of The Machines, on Darwinian principles, and makes actually rather a good argument as to the similarities between the development of technology and the natural selection process of evolution (he protests in his foreword that this was not meant to be a satire against Darwinism, and I believe him). As a result, all machines invented less than 271 years before the revolution have been destroyed, their remnants preserved in museums as an Awful Warning. It had not occurred to me before that this book is the origin of the “Butlerian jihad” in the back-story of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It is also an obvious precursor, though it draws the opposite conclusions, to the concept of the Singularity (see Vinge, , etc). The argument goes on too long – four chapters which are basically “translations” from the Erewhonian – but it has some good moments.

There are a few other targets – vegetarianism; scholarship in general (“No doubt the marvellous development of journalism in England, as also the fact that our seats of learning aim rather at fostering mediocrity than anything higher, is due to our subconscious recognition of the fact that it is even more necessary to check exuberance of mental development than to encourage it.”); religion (here transformed into banking, not completely successfully). Of course, the country of Erewhon is also a literary ancestor of Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon. In summary, this is more of a taproot text for sf than I had realised, decently short and mostly digestible.

(The only other sf I can think of set in New Zealand is “Georgia On My Mind“.)

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