Oct. 25th, 2010

zeborah: Zebra against a barcode background, walking on the word READ (read)
Erewhon, or, Over the Range (1872) by Samuel Butler

Butler wrote part of the premise of Erewhon in 1863 as a letter to the editor of the Press, "Darwin Among the Machines".

Erewhon itself isn't much more plotful. It's the traditional storyline: "Man travels to Strange Lands; man infodumps for a couple of dozen chapters about Strange Lands, incidentally meeting a girl; man escapes with girl in hot air balloon."

As Anno Domini 2000 had three basic premises, so had Erewhon three topics for satire, except Butler was less helpful than Vogel so I've had to extrude them myself. Near as I can tell, they are:
  1. disease vs bad behaviour: in Erewhon disease is punishable by law and bad behaviour treated and cured -- and the system actually seems almost as workable as our own
  2. religion: Butler actually satirises this from a number of directions. One is treating it like a banking system which everyone claims to value while in practice only truly valuing the money from a supposedly inferior banking system. Another was describing their beliefs in pre-existence as a satire on the afterlife and (in its consequences) on baptism. Thirdly was setting up a pantheon of virtues (justice, hope, etc) and principles (two things can't be in the same place at once; thus the gods get angry if a stone and a head try to inhabit the same space at the same time, and may even strike dead the head in question) and then fourthly he added another religion, Ydgrunism, with a goddess who is what people really believe in, but to be honest at this point I totally lost track of what the hell he was on about.
  3. the possibility of machines developing consciousness (including paragraphs copied from his 1963 letter to the editor). I'm not sure if he had a point here other than being clever (not that I object to being clever), because he's written somewhere that he wasn't attempting to satirise Darwinism. But at the same time he doesn't seem to have any real fear of machines beyond the thought experiment. He also proposes, briefly, an alternative view that machines are an evolution of humanity - we're developing limbs that we can pick up and put down at will, so to speak - but then he moves on quickly to describe the Erewhonians' decision to make away with all machines entirely.
There's also some miscellaneous thoughts on vegetarianism (which he reducts ad absurdum) and education (including classical languages, which I'm getting the idea were unpopular among forward-thinking men of the late 19th century) and other bits and pieces; these are less well integrated into the story, such as it is.

It's probable that the narrator-protag's constant desire to convert the Erewhonians to C of E is a satire itself, especially as it culminates in the final pages; only the difference of 140 years makes me unsure of the precise rhetorical context he was operating in.

May appeal to those who thought Gulliver's Travels had too much adventure and not enough infodumping.

(HTML and ePub versions available at NZETC.)


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