The Land at the Opposite End of Nowhere

May 6, 2012 § 3 Comments


Erewhon (Butler, Samuel)

Fantasy is a genre that stales easily; its immediate appeal comes from the novelty of the ideas contained, and enduring literary quality comes from the new light that those ideas manage to shed on our world, this reality. In order to be truly great, a fantasy novel needs to say something strikingly original, and it needs to constantly surprise its readers. I am pleased to report back that Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is a shockingly, unexpectedly delightful read: a sleeper hit, as far as my personal box office is concerned.

What I had expected to read was a run-of-the-mill dystopian Proto-Sci-Fi novel, purveying sensationalism and bad science in equal measure. What I found was that it is neither a straightforward dystopia, nor even a conventional novel. It is surprisingly innovative for its Victorian vintage, in that the wafer-thin plot is not much more than a convenient vehicle for communicating the wild philosophical and satirical ideas of the author; ideas that are every bit as radical, refreshing and relevant today as they must have been in 1872. And there are not one but two whole families of such ideas.

Utopia, Dystopia and Reality: The Garden of Earthly Delights tryptich of Heironymous Bosch, Museo del Prado (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The second of these (as they appear in the book) is the one for which Erewhon is best known– that the sophistication and complexity of man-made machines will increase over time until they achieve consciousness and enslave humans. This meme, known as the Singularity Theory, is currently trending in the 21st century thanks to the efforts of the futurist, Ray Kurzweil and the formation of the Singularity University. Over the years, it has gained strong support in the scientist community, from the likes of Alan Turing and Stanislaw Ulam. Karel Capek’s 1920 play, R. U. R., brought the idea into the larger limelight, and Hollywood has chipped in enthusiastically and often, with their own take on the theme, among the more recent blockbuster examples being the Matrix and Terminator franchises. Further, more serious writers, like George Orwell, have written passionately to strongly deplore the modern over-reliance on machines, declaring that machines de-humanize people, they make us soft and weak, like overfed domestic cats that would be helpless in the wild. Such authors have craved for a return to a simpler, harder life that was somehow purer, more fulfilling. All of these are the same meme, Man v Machine, in different guises, and the very first time it was set out in print, the granddaddy of them all was Erewhon; it was in Samuel Butler’s fertile mind that the idea germinated in the first place.

It wasn’t a casual, serendipitous germination either – the arguments that Butler lays out so coherently in support of the theory have not been materially improved upon since his time. In addition to being the first, Erewhon’s is also the most interesting treatment of the Man v Machine idea that I have read or seen. There is no war between men and machines here; no dystopian world ruled by a master race of machines. Butler is subtler. The Erewhonians predict the coming conflict and destroy all machines well in advance, and the dystopian world, if you can call it that, is actually a land bereft of machines, a civilization that has rejected all notion of technological progress.

The other wacky thing about Erewhon concerns its laws and social norms. Erewhonians punish physical illness, disease, poverty and misfortune with prison sentences and fines, while treating criminal behaviour as a condition needing medical attention. It is during Butler’s exposition of this behaviour that it first dawned on me that Butler was not your average fantasy fiction fellah, but a savage satirist of Swiftian stature, who is saying many different things at the same time. First, he makes us think the Erewhonians must be extremely stupid for acting the way they do. Then, he points out that there is a kind of logic to what they do, and that it may not be as ridiculous as it seemed at first. He then continues to show us that our own society is not really that different from the Erewhonians, and forces a critical introspection on his readers. Overarchingly, he points out, all social norms are mere conventions, lines arbitrarily drawn in the sand that could very easily appear illogical to others, and not, as we fondly imagine, the only civilized and rational way of doing things. Ultimately, Butler’s message is about Rationality itself, at the altar of which his Victorian generation knelt fervently. As he says:

There are no follies and no unreasonableness so great as those which can be irrefragably defended by reason itself, and there is hardly an error into which men may not easily be led if they base their conduct upon reason only

This insight he fashions into a scathing scalpel, with which he plucks at the various vital organs of Victorian society –its high society, its concepts of propriety, much-vaunted medical sciences, its hallowed colleges, the Church – and he demonstrates with precision the many inadequacies of each institution. It is great fun, especially when you realize that the same weapon can easily be turned upon 21st century society as well, with its smug, unquestioning attitude towards everything from politics and economics to science and religion.

Kingsley Amis wrote a masterful Afterword in the edition I read, but I wasn’t sure I agreed with him on one point, where he read the Man v Machine part of Erewhon as a criticism of Darwinism. That Erewhon was strongly influenced by Darwin is apparent, and not just in the parts about machine evolution. Any society that raises physical beauty and well-being to a high ethic, clearly operates on Darwinian principles. But is Butler critical of Darwinism? In this, as in his attitude towards the Church and many other things, I find Butler profoundly ambivalent, allowing the reader the opportunity to see the logical inconsistencies in all perspectives. And there, exactly, lie both the charm of Samuel Butler and his principal deficiency.

Butler would have been a great speculative philosopher if he would only take definite sides. Everywhere he looks, he sees things that he can find fault with, and he finds hilarious ways of poking fun at them. But he always hedges his bets. He finds fault with the alternatives as well. He argues constantly with himself and is more interested in the shape that the argument takes, than in any conclusion. Sadly, posterity does not confer greatness on such men. Nevertheless, Butler has a distinct and unique place in the history of ideas, with illustrious forebears (Thomas More’s Utopia, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem, perhaps even Desiderius ErasmusIn Praise of Folly) and illustrious heirs (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, etc.). Like all of them, Butler describes other worlds but is only thinking of his own. Unlike the rest, he suggests that there is only a very thin line that separates a Utopia from a Dystopia, or either from the real world.

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