Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is an excuse for the author to climb inside of an interesting idea and walk around a bit. He has a hero and the semblance of a plot, but the book is really about about showcasing the thinking of one Samuel Butler. Lucky for us, it’s some interesting stuff. I wanted to read the book because of several late chapters that expand on the idea of machines enslaving humanity, but my impression was that the whole book was basically an excuse to feature these chapters, and that the country of Erewhon was an extended riff on this core idea. Naturally, it all goes back to Darwin.
Erewhon is a first-person story of a young man living at the edge of empire in a fictional New Zealand and looking to make his fortune by venturing inland in search of grazable land or other exploitable resources. What he finds after his perilous journey is the civilization of Erewhon, and the remainder of the book covers his description of his adventures among them, their history and customs, and his ultimate escape. Sections of the book are extremely engaging and fun, and the less fun parts are still interesting, and the prose doesn’t hurt at all. I rather enjoyed it.
The narrator learns fairly early on that the Erewhonians have some strange customs, including a ban on all machinery, the criminalization of ill-health, and a high tolerance for what we might consider the moral transgressions of theft, lies, and the like. It’s a topsy-turvy world, and as a foreigner with a pocket watch and the occasional head cold, our narrator just barely stays on the safe side of trouble throughout the book, taking care lest he offend in some unexpected way or commit some awful gaffe, or worse. The story follows his initial capture, his life with a wealthy family, his understanding and experience with various parts of Erewhonian culture, which are indeed what propel the book along. For example, one of the interesting institutions of Erewhon are what they call “Musical Banks,” where people go to deposit and retrieve pretend money ceremoniously. Although it has all the trappings of a regular bank—such as tellers—the whole thing functions more as a church. The narrator puzzles over these for a long time before finally getting himself invited on a visit, and the full explanation of their purpose takes up a good chapter or more.
The centerpiece of the book, for which as I said I think the people of Erewhon were invented as an excuse to further explore, is a key philosophical work in the Erewhonian past called The Book of the Machines. This book, of which our narrator transcribes great sections, lays out the argument of a great philosopher that machines pose a mortal threat to humankind by virtue of their rapid evolution and the likelihood that they will achieve ultimate superiority over men, at which time we will of course be their slaves. Obviously, this is the plot of both The Matrix and The Terminator (and he even gets a hat tip from Frank Herbert whose “Butlerian Jihad” is a critical backstory in Dune), and the whole thing feels very prescient given the subsequent rise of computers and AI, the aforementioned blockbuster movies, and the very real concern of something like this happening. But Butler is able to make this argument when the most advanced machine was the steam engine, making it a really virtuoso performance.
I gather that when it came out, many saw The Book of the Machines as a critique of Darwin, but to me it felt like more of an homage. Butler takes the concepts of evolution and natural selection and applies them to the development of machines, noting how they have adapted and evolved to achieve high levels of sophistication, how they have learned to exist in symbiosis with their surroundings, and how machines like the steam engine depend upon men filling them with fuel in the same way that flowers depend upon insects for pollination. Much like Darwin in The Origin of Species, Butler lays out his premise and then proceeds to raise and answer every objection he can come to for why he might be wrong. In the context of the novel, it’s the source for one of their prime points of Erewhonian strangeness—the criminalization of machinery—but in fact the argument is sound and well presented.
There’s another nice section where Butler talks about Erewhonian efforts to mandate vegetarianism due to the immorality of killing animals. Based on the strength of another philosopher’s argument, they outlaw eating any animal except those that die natural deaths or commit suicide, which leads to this sort of thing:
It will be easily believed that at first there were many who gave the new rules outward observance, but embraced every opportunity of indulging secretly in those flesh-pots to which they had been accustomed. It was found that animals were continually dying natural deaths under more or less suspicious circumstances. Suicidal mania, again, which had hitherto been confined exclusively to donkeys, became alarmingly prevalent even among such for the most part self-respecting creatures as sheep and cattle. It was astonishing how some of these unfortunate animals would scent out a butcher’s knife if there was one within a mile of them, and run right up against it if the butcher did not get it out of their way in time.
A subsequent philosopher extended the concept to plants as well, and after an ill-fated attempt to live solely on fruit that had fallen from the tree, they scraped the whole thing and went back to eating everything in sight. In order to justify this big shift, they consulted an oracle, who informs them neatly:
He who sins aught
Sins more than he ought;
But he who sins nought
Has much to be taught.
Beat or be beaten,
Eat or be eaten,
Be killed or kill;
Choose which you will.
By and large Butler was using the Erewhonians to critique the kinds of crazy thinking and backward institutions society can be prone to, and to grind some of his own axes. There were probably all kinds of digs at Victorian mores that slid past me, but the whole thing was amusing, and engaging, so I didn’t mind whatever I missed. Satire has always struck me as a genre with the shortest expiration date, but Butler wraps up enough engaging thinking that the whole thing holds up nicely. Not something I’d read on vacation, necessarily, but it feels like an important piece of science fiction history, and I’m glad I read it.
Excerpt from Erewhon, by Samuel Butler
Then returning to consciousness, and endeavouring to detect its earliest manifestations, the writer continued:-
“There is a kind of plant that eats organic food with its flowers: when a fly settles upon the blossom, the petals close upon it and hold it fast till the plant has absorbed the insect into its system; but they will close on nothing but what is good to eat; of a drop of rain or a piece of stick they will take no notice. Curious! that so unconscious a thing should have such a keen eye to its own interest. If this is unconsciousness, where is the use of consciousness?
“Shall we say that the plant does not know what it is doing merely because it has no eyes, or ears, or brains? If we say that it acts mechanically, and mechanically only, shall we not be forced to admit that sundry other and apparently very deliberate actions are also mechanical? If it seems to us that the plant kills and eats a fly mechanically, may it not seem to the plant that a man must kill and eat a sheep mechanically?
“But it may be said that the plant is void of reason, because the growth of a plant is an involuntary growth. Given earth, air, and due temperature, the plant must grow: it is like a clock, which being once wound up will go till it is stopped or run down: it is like the wind blowing on the sails of a ship–the ship must go when the wind blows it. But can a healthy boy help growing if he have good meat and drink and clothing? can anything help going as long as it is wound up, or go on after it is run down? Is there not a winding up process everywhere?
“Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead. He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. He sees the light coming from the cellar window and sends his shoots crawling straight thereto: they will crawl along the floor and up the wall and out at the cellar window; if there be a little earth anywhere on the journey he will find it and use it for his own ends. What deliberation he may exercise in the matter of his roots when he is planted in the earth is a thing unknown to us, but we can imagine him saying, ‘I will have a tuber here and a tuber there, and I will suck whatsoever advantage I can from all my surroundings. This neighbour I will overshadow, and that I will undermine; and what I can do shall be the limit of what I will do. He that is stronger and better placed than I shall overcome me, and him that is weaker I will overcome.’
“The potato says these things by doing them, which is the best of languages. What is consciousness if this is not consciousness? We find it difficult to sympathise with the emotions of a potato; so we do with those of an oyster. Neither of these things makes a noise on being boiled or opened, and noise appeals to us more strongly than anything else, because we make so much about our own sufferings. Since, then, they do not annoy us by any expression of pain we call them emotionless; and so _qua_ mankind they are; but mankind is not everybody.
“If it be urged that the action of the potato is chemical and mechanical only, and that it is due to the chemical and mechanical effects of light and heat, the answer would seem to lie in an inquiry whether every sensation is not chemical and mechanical in its operation? whether those things which we deem most purely spiritual are anything but disturbances of equilibrium in an infinite series of levers, beginning with those that are too small for microscopic detection, and going up to the human arm and the appliances which it makes use of? whether there be not a molecular action of thought, whence a dynamical theory of the passions shall be deducible? Whether strictly speaking we should not ask what kind of levers a man is made of rather than what is his temperament? How are they balanced? How much of such and such will it take to weigh them down so as to make him do so and so?”
The writer went on to say that he anticipated a time when it would be possible, by examining a single hair with a powerful microscope, to know whether its owner could be insulted with impunity. He then became more and more obscure, so that I was obliged to give up all attempt at translation; neither did I follow the drift of his argument. On coming to the next part which I could construe, I found that he had changed his ground.
“Either,” he proceeds, “a great deal of action that has been called purely mechanical and unconscious must be admitted to contain more elements of consciousness than has been allowed hitherto (and in this case germs of consciousness will be found in many actions of the higher machines)–Or (assuming the theory of evolution but at the same time denying the consciousness of vegetable and crystalline action) the race of man has descended from things which had no consciousness at all. In this case there is no _a priori_ improbability in the descent of conscious (and more than conscious) machines from those which now exist, except that which is suggested by the apparent absence of anything like a reproductive system in the mechanical kingdom. This absence however is only apparent, as I shall presently show.
“Do not let me be misunderstood as living in fear of any actually existing machine; there is probably no known machine which is more than a prototype of future mechanical life. The present machines are to the future as the early Saurians to man. The largest of them will probably greatly diminish in size. Some of the lowest vertebrate attained a much greater bulk than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, and in like manner a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress.
“Take the watch, for example; examine its beautiful structure; observe the intelligent play of the minute members which compose it: yet this little creature is but a development of the cumbrous clocks that preceded it; it is no deterioration from them. A day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present time are not diminishing in bulk, will be superseded owing to the universal use of watches, in which case they will become as extinct as ichthyosauri, while the watch, whose tendency has for some years been to decrease in size rather than the contrary, will remain the only existing type of an extinct race.