A review of Erewhon by Samuel Butler

Lately it’s all about Darwin. I read Veblen, which was drenched in the influence of Darwin, which prompted me to read Darwin himself, and now with Samuel Butler, I find that I’m encountering Darwin yet again. The man had an enormous impact on everything and everyone around him, it would seem. In the case of Erewhon, Darwin is implicit in the late series of chapters in which the narrator discusses The Book Of The Machines, and talks about them in strictly evolutionary terms. But because the whole thing it seems to me an excuse to expand upon the ideas in those chapters, I would describe the book as a a sort of proto science fiction novel skiing off of the concept of natural selection.

Erewhon is a first-person story of a young man living at the edge of empire, and looking to make his fortune by venturing inland in search of grazable land or other exploitable resource. What he finds after his perilous journey is the civilization of Erewhon, with the remainder of the book being his description of his adventures among them, their history and customs, and his ultimate escape. Parts of the book are on the fun side, and the less fun parts are still interesting, and the prose doesn’t hurt at all. I rather enjoyed it.

The narrator learns fairly early on that the Erewhonians have some strange customs, including a ban on all machinery, the criminalization of ill-health, and a high tolerance for what we might consider the moral transgressions of theft, lies, and the like. It’s a topsy-turvy world, and as a foreigner with a pocket watch and the occasional cold, our narrator just barely stays on the safe side of trouble throughout the book, taking care lest he offend in some unexpected way or commit some awful gaffe or worse. The story follows his initial capture, his life with a wealthy family, his understanding and experience with various parts of Erewhonian culture, which are indeed what propel the book along. As an example, one of the interesting institution of Erewhon are what they call Musical Banks, where people go and deposit and retrieve pretend money ceremoniously, which although it has all the trappings of a regular bank—such as tellers—the whole thing functions more as a church. The narrator puzzles over these for a long time, before finally getting himself invited on a visit, and the full explanation of them takes up a good chapter or more.

The centerpiece of the book, for which I think the people of Erewhon were invented as an excuse to further explore, is a key philosophical work in the Erewhonian past called The Book Of The Machines. This book, which our narrator transcribes great sections of, lays out the argument of a great philosopher that machines pose a mortal threat to humankind by virtue of their rapid evolution, and the likelyhood that they will achieve ultimate superiority over men, at which time we will of course be their slaves. Obviously, this is the plot of both The Matrix and Terminator, and probably a bunch of other stories as well, and the whole thing feels very prescient given the subsequent rise of computers and AI, the aforementioned blockbuster movies, and the in fact real concern of something like this happening, particularly with a 100k year timescale. But Butler is able to make the argument when the most advanced machine was the steam engine, making it a really virtuoso performance.

I gather that when it came out, many saw The Book Of The Machines as a critique of Darwin, but to me it felt like more of an homage. He takes the concept of evolution and natural selection, and applies it to the development of machines, noting how they have adapted and evolved to achieve high levels of sophistication, and how they have learned to exist in symbiosis with their surroundings, how the steam engine depends upon men filling it with fuel in the same way that flowers depend upon insects for polination. Much as Darwin does in Origin of Species, the author lays out his premise, and then proceeds to raise and answer every objection he can come to for why he might be wrong. In the context of the novel, it’s the source for one of their prime points of  Erewhonian strangeness—the criminalization of machinery—but in fact the argument is sound and well presented.

There’s another nice section where he talks about Erewhonian efforts to be mandate vegetarianism due to the immorality of killing animals. Based on the strength of another philsopher’s argument, they outlaw eating any animal except those that die natural deaths or commit suicide, which leads to this sort of thing:

It will be easily believed that at first there were many who gave the new rules outward observance, but embraced every opportunity of indulging secretly in those flesh-pots to which they had been accustomed.  It was found that animals were continually dying natural deaths under more or less suspicious circumstances.  Suicidal mania, again, which had hitherto been confined exclusively to donkeys, became alarmingly prevalent even among such for the most part self-respecting creatures as sheep and cattle.  It was astonishing how some of these unfortunate animals would scent out a butcher’s knife if there was one within a mile of them, and run right up against it if the butcher did not get it out of their way in time.

A subsequent philosopher extended the concept to plants as well, and after an ill-fated attempt to live solely on fruit that had fallen from the tree, they scrap the whole thing and go back to eating anything in sight. In order to justify this big shift they consult an oracle, who informs them neatly:

He who sins aught
Sins more than he ought;
But he who sins nought
Has much to be taught.
Beat or be beaten,
Eat or be eaten,
Be killed or kill;
Choose which you will.

By and large Butler was using the Erewhonians to illuminate the kinds of crazy thinking and backward institutions society can be prone to. There were probably all kinds of specific digs at Victorian mores that slid past me, but the whole thing was amusing, and engaging, so I didn’t mind whatever I missed. And The Book of the Machines was worth the price of admission, for sure. I wouldn’t exactly call it a vacation read, but it was quite enjoyable.

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