Saturday, September 20, 2014

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

The reader will have no difficulty in believing that the laws regarding ill health were frequently evaded by the help of recognized fictions, which every one understood, but which it would be considered gross ill-breeding to even seem to understand.  Thus, a day or two after my arrival at the Nosnibors', one of the many ladies who called on me made excuses for her husband's only sending his card, on the ground that when going through the public market-place that morning he had stolen a pair of socks.  I had already been warned that I should never show surprise, so I merely expressed my sympathy, and said that though I had only been in the capital so short a time, I had already had a very narrow escape from stealing a clothes-brush, and that though I had resisted temptation so far, I was sadly afraid that if I saw any object of special interest that was neither too hot or too heavy, I should have to put myself in the straightener's hands.

Samuel Butler's Erewhon is frequently referred to as one of the earliest dystopian novels, though it has less in common with The Road or 1984 with the satirical imaginings of Gulliver's Travels.  Erewhon, a country apparently deep in the recesses of New Zealand (where Butler was once employed in the sheep-herding business) looks mostly like Victorian England, with a few curious inversions, and of course that is the way we are supposed to perceive it.

There are two main hallmarks of Erewhonian culture: The first is that they consider physical illness to be a moral failing, but actions we would consider morally objectionable they treat as if they were an illness.  Butler's unnamed narrator complains to one host that he has a cold, and she upbraids him for his wickedness; later he learns that another host was discovered embezzling huge amounts of money, which has earned him the pity and condolences of everyone in Erewhon.  Butler has a good deal of fun describing the particulars of this system, including the prevalence of "straighteners," who, like doctors, prescribe treatment for their patients, which usually includes a number of lashings.  But the satire is pointed toward Victorian notions of crime and punishment, and meant to challenge his audience's notions of guilt: Do we, like the Erewhonians, do anything to reform those convicted of crimes?

The other is a Luddite-like aversion to technology, inscribed in Erewhonian law, which prohibits any technology developed after a certain point in Erewhonian history.  The narrator lands in hot water immediately for possessing a wristwatch (though Butler never really explains why this criminal act doesn't land the narrator in a hospital, instead of arousing the suspicion of the king).  Butler includes a long section called "The Book of the Machines," which is ostensibly the narrator's translation of a historical Erewhonian text.  This passage, though it underscores the way in which Erewhon is more an extended riff on imaginary social mores than a plotted story, is one of the more interesting parts of the book.  It lays out an argument for thinking about machines as a species with their own systems of reproduction and which may one day come to exert power over mankind.  Butler is writing about steam engines and railroads, not computers or artificial intelligences, but his argument is spookily prescient of the fears we have about technology today.  It's not clear how satirical "The Book of the Machines" is--I get the impression that Butler believed in this argument, despite how silly it must have seemed to Victorians--but if one imagines information technology to be a "descendant" of Industrial Revolution-era technologies, it's not far off the mark.

The plot of Erewhon is bare bones: the narrator discovers the country, becomes something of a guest and something of a captive, and ultimately hatches an escape, taking the daughter of his host with him back to England.  The ideas are mildly interesting, but neither funny nor insightful enough to really make Erewhon engaging.  Perhaps the most cutting moment of satire in the whole thing occurs in the very end, when the narrator declares his intention to return to Erewhon and both enslave and Christianize the Erewhonians.  At the height of the British Empire, the profound grossness of the narrator's wish to eradicate the culture he'd been a part of for several years must have rang pretty true.

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