Erewhon by Samuel Butler [A Review]

Erewhon by Samuel Butler is a flawed novel, but within its pages readers will find parallels to the adventure fiction and colonial literature of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as hints of the future of utopian/dystopian fiction and science-fiction.

Higgs, the narrator of Erewhon has left England, hinting at a troubled past, for a British colony. Here he finds work at a sheep station, filling his days in isolation by tracking and catching sheep that have escaped their herds. He hopes to one day make his fortune by having a farm of his own. He even hopes he might discover gold in this barely explored landscape in the foothills of a mountain range.

Waking in the night I saw the stars overhead and the moonlight bright upon the mountains. The river was ever rushing; I heard one of our horses neigh to its companion, and was assured that they were still at hand; I had no care of mind or body, save that I had doubtless many difficulties to overcome; there came upon me a delicious sense of peace, a fulness of contentment which I do not believe can be felt by any but those who have spent days consecutively on horseback, or at any rate in the open air.

But on some days, at certain locations, he can see through a gap in the mountains and spy green pastures on the other side.

[…] in a few minutes, I felt resolved that, having made so important a discovery as a pass into a country which was probably as valuable as that on our own side of the ranges, I would follow it up and ascertain its value, even though I should pay the penalty of failure with life itself. The more I thought, the more determined I became either to win fame and perhaps fortune, by entering upon this unknown world, or give up life in the attempt.

Determined to venture further, he enlists the help of an unreliable native named Chowbok and sets off. But Chowbok will only take him so far and is strangely reluctant. The narrator soon finds himself abandoned and must continue alone. He comes across signs of an ancient civilisation; immense statues standing in a circle. Soon after he is captured by their modern descendants. He has entered the land of Erewhon (an anagram of ‘nowhere’) and has become their captive.

The bizarre culture and beliefs of the Erewhonians quickly makes itself apparent. For starters, the Erewhonians have a very low tolerance for machinery and regard most of it as evil and dangerous. The fact that Higgs is in possession of a watch places him under immediate suspicion and it is quickly taken from him. Furthermore, in Erewhon sickness is treated as a criminal matter. People who fall ill are sentenced and imprisoned, their reputations forever damaged. Whereas criminal activity is treated as an illness. The criminal is allowed to be free but must receive treatment from a ‘Straightener’. The prescription can be harsh but it comes from a place of compassion and rehabilitation.

Once it is determined that Higgs is of little danger, he is released into the care of an Erewhonian family, the father of which was guilty of embezzlement and is regularly visited by a Straightener. Higgs becomes something of a foreign novelty in Erewhon and is even invited to the court of the King and Queen. He witnesses more bizarre Erewhonian customs and tries to understand their beliefs. Soon, though, he senses that his novelty value is wearing off and the fact of his watch is making him a target of suspicion. Higgs feels he must plan an escape.

The early chapters of Erewhon are very engaging. It is difficult to not enjoy the sense of colonial adventure, journey into the unknown and an ordinary protagonist out to make his fortune. Those early chapters are based on Butler’s experiences in colonial New Zealand and the landscape he describes feels unmistakeably like the Canterbury foothills to the Southern Alps.

Unfortunately, once Higgs becomes established in Erewhon, the story disappears, and the novel becomes a series of essays about the Erewhonian’s beliefs and practices. This is not surprising given the novel’s conception. Butler had written a series of articles and essays inspired by Darwin’s Origin of Species as well as his own thoughts on religion and technology, some of them published in New Zealand newspaper, The Press. Encouraged to write a book, Butler instead framed a novel around his essays and the result was Erewhon.

The lack of a story through the middle of the novel is certainly Erewhon’s critical fault. It was very disappointing to see the story disappear and the book become a series of essays and I yearned for a return to the story. When so many novels are an exploration of a philosophy or theme that takes the form of an engaging story, the fact that Butler could not incorporate one into the other, or at least let them live side by side, speaks, I think, to a lack of ability as a writer of fiction. It is something Butler acknowledges in the Preface written almost thirty years after Erewhon was first published:

In Erewhon there was hardly any story, and little attempt to give life and individuality to the characters;

That being said, there was still much to enjoy in the essays. Some of the customs of Erewhon are clearly a critique or satire of then contemporary society. But it would be wrong to think the beliefs of the Erewhonians or of the narrator, Higgs, to be a reflection of the author’s views, and Erewhon is therefore not a polemic. There are clear distinctions, for example both Higgs and Erewhonians are far more deferential to their own versions of religion than Butler was. Butler gives the reader much to think about, from the treatment of criminals, to organised religion, from free will to technology. All delivered with some memorable phrasing.

Of genius they make no account, for they say that every one is a genius, more or less. No one is so physically sound that no part of him will even be a little unsound, and no one is so diseased but that some part of him will be healthy – so no man is so mentally and morally sound, but that he will be in part both mad and wicked; and no man is so mad and wicked but he will be sensible and honourable in part. In like manner there is no genius who is not also a fool, and no fool who is not also a genius.

I found the essays got progressively more interesting as the book went on, culminating in Higgs’ explanation for the Erewhonian’s fear of technology. Here Butler is credited with being the inventor of the idea that has become one of the dominant themes of modern science fiction; the fear that the evolution of technology will inevitably lead to machines that are sentient, intelligent and conscious, with disastrous results.

‘There is no security’ – to quote his own words – ‘against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. […] Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! May not the world last twenty million longer? If so, what will they not in the end become? Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress?’

One aspect of Erewhon that I feel is overlooked is its place as a colonial novel. Higgs is clearly a man searching to make his fortune in a frontier that will not last. The native, Chowbok, is an alcoholic, speaking to the disastrous impact the introduction of refined alcohol had on indigenous populations in European colonies across the world. Higgs feels certain that the Erewhonians must be one of the lost tribes of Israel, highlighting a concern that European explorers of the era held. And, though he is no missionary, Higgs feels an unquestioned moral imperative to convert Chowbok to Christianity and even envisions an invasion of Erewhon for the same aim.

I can see no hitch or difficulty about the matter, and trust that this book will sufficiently advertise the scheme to insure the subscription of the necessary capital; as soon as this is forthcoming I will guarantee that I convert the Erewhonians not only into good Christians but into a source of considerable profit to the shareholders.

While the postponement of the story was one critical fault, its resumption was another. The ending of Erehwon was, I felt, improvised, rushed and unlikely. Again, it shows that Butler had no great training as a writer of fiction at this point. Nevertheless, it contains aspects to recommend it; such as the ideas it expounds or the description of colonial New Zealand it relates.

When I was reading it, I felt reminded of some other works that, admittedly, I have not yet read and know only by reputation. First, Higg’s narration of his there-and-back-again journey into the unknown, where both he and the reader are introduced to seductive new ideas, made me think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, first published about twenty years after Erewhon. The Englishman who travels to a bizarre land, clearly intended as a satire and commentary of his English home, invites to obvious comparison to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published long before Erewon. Finally, the essay on the evolution of technology, easily the most enjoyable part of Erewhon to me, is the original antecedent to some of today’s most enduring science fiction from Blade Runner and I, Robot to the Terminator series, not to mention also one of the few matters of import to our own time on which the experts are strongly divided.

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