The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Erewhon by Samuel Butler (1872)

ErewhonThe interesting aspect about the development of science fiction is that not all key texts are actually science fiction. However, they are worth an investigation. Samuel Butler was a bit of a polymath, being a commentator on Christian orthodoxy, Italian art, evolution, and literary history and criticism. He also made prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. So it is appropriate that he wrote a cultural satire which nods towards Utopia by Thomas More.

Erewhon: or, Over the Range was first published in 1872. Erewhon is of course an anagram of ‘nowhere’. The fictional country is meant to based on Butler’s experiences in New Zealand, although the inhabitants of the mysterious land are described as European in appearance. The copy I read is 1985 Penguin Classic edition, based upon their first publication of their reprint in 1935. As is usual, I did not read the introduction or notes on the text. This was my first reading of the text.

Erewhon begins with a narrator and his guide (Chowbok) visiting the forbidden country which lies beyond the mountains. They find a pass through, but Chowbok runs off in fear. Our hero continues until he finds a mysterious collection of statues. He loses consciousness and is discovered by some Erewhonians. He is taken to a village, and locked up because he owns a watch. Yram (Mary), befriends him and teaches him the language.  He discovers that these people treat illness and misery as crimes. Grief is a sign of misfortune and an individual is held responsible for actions that made them unfortunate. Machines, such as the watch, are also seen as criminal. The narrator’s reputation spreads and he his soon summoned to the capital to meet the king and queen. He is told he is to stay with Mr Nosnibor (Robinson) who is a recovering embezzler. Actual crime is seen to be something to be pitied and treated. The protagonist soon falls in love with the youngest daughter, Arowhena (which doesn’t appear to be an anagram of anything at all). However, the oldest is to be wed first, and it must be the narrator’s responsibility to marry her.

It is at this point that the narrative halts and the philosophical treatise begins. While visiting the University of Unreason, where students study anything that has absolutely no practical purpose, he learns the truth of the society – the Musical Banks, the worship of Ydgrun, the Book of Machines and more. It is this that section that is the true satire of Victorian culture. Butler talks about religion and science. He writes to comment on his almost Lamarckian view of evolution, in opposition to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Lamarckian evolution is based on the idea of inherited traits: the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring (so a giraffe that stretches its neck longer to reach the highest leaves will give birth to offspring with a longer neck). Butler’s writing suggests that cells have a will and a capacity to shape their environment. He is well versed in the science of the day and even quotes Paley’s theory on the divine watchmaker. Butler also satirises his perceived injustices of Victorian England by means of this utopia in which everything in Erewhon is the exact opposite of what they were in England. These are broad attacks however, and it is never really clear who Butler is riling against, with the possible exception of Darwin. The philosophical chapters cover the Musical Banks, the Ydgrunites, the Colleges of Unreason, the Book of the Machines (the idea that machines may evolve and come to dominate humanity), and the myth of the world of the unborn (where the unborn choose their parents). There is a sense of the nonsensical about this book, which must be deliberate. While a satire on Utopia is probably seen as a dystopia, this world that Butler creates has more in common with the surrealists and the literary nonsense of Lear.

In the last couple of chapters, the narrative returns, and our hero escapes in a balloon with Arowhena. They find a ship and are married before returning to England. The book concludes with them planning to return to Erewhon in order to change their culture, as akin to Christian missionaries. So does this mean that Butler actually thinks Victorian society is correct and should dominate and even replace that of Erewhon?

Firstly, I should point out that this is less of a novel, or a story, and more of rant. For the majority of the book, not a lot happens. As with Gulliver’sSamuel_Butler_by_Charles_Gogin Travels a narrator goes to a place and then simply describes their society. ­The main character, our narrator, is a fairly dull and objectionable personality. He is rescued and taught by the kindly Yram and develops emotions for her, and yet abandons her without a care at the drop of a hat. He basically assumes he knows better than everyone else.

Secondly, I think that it is quite strange that despite the likes of Shelly and Verne creating hugely influential and popular works of fiction, and this being published 350ish years after Utopia (1516), the novel doesn’t appear to have evolved much. There is little difference in style and construction in all this time. The idea of incorporating world-building into plot has not yet occurred to authors.

I should have loved this. The writing is technically fine. It is the typical diary-style of the fantastic voyage format and the author knows that his words are meant to be read and reacted upon by future generations. There are moments of wit and there are some interesting passages and novel ideas. It is, as I’ve said, the work of a knowledgeable author. This is however, by 1872, a tired conceit, especially when the plot stops and the rant starts. The book is quite peculiar, distinctively imaginative and satirising a subject I know about and was educated in, but it is so very dull. There are hints of the warnings common in science fiction during the Book of the Machines section, but there is nothing about Erewhon that is actual science fiction. It is not even fantasy, just a misplaced tirade. Nothing more than a mildly interesting diversion from more actual science fiction from the late 1800s.

 

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