Nowhere Man

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is one of those iconic 19th century novels that most people have heard of, but that few of us have ever bothered to read. I bought a copy years ago at a used book sale. Last month I finally got around to giving it a try.

It’s pretty much a mess, but it’s an interesting mess. Sometimes it seems Butler is attempting satire by devising a society that’s the polar opposite of 19th century England. Other times he’s frankly describing England, but with a thin veil of “let’s pretend I’m talking about something else.” One section of the book is adapted from an essay he had written previously, and is fiction only in the sense that he is now pretending somebody else wrote it.

The framework is an undiscovered-civilization yarn, the kind of thing Edgar Rice Burroughs would be doing 40 years later in some of his Tarzan stories, and that Jonathan Swift had done 130 years earlier in Gulliver’s Travels. The main conceit is that the Erewhonians (inhabitants of an unknown region in the southern hemisphere) do things backwards. Not everything: They don’t walk backwards, much less start out life as wrinkled senior citizens and then grow progressively younger. No, they’re people just like us … or rather, just like 19th century Britons. They just have a few peculiar ideas.

Their legal system punishes severely those who are diseased, but provides no punishment other than what we would today call behavior modification therapy for acts that we would consider criminal. Sentencing a man to hard labor for having contracted tuberculosis is just silly, and Butler is forced to backpedal to the extent of acknowledging that this system is sometimes covertly ignored for humanitarian reasons. A man who has embezzled money, however, gets nothing but sympathy and support from his neighbors.

The embezzler’s therapy includes being flogged, so it’s not all peaches and cream. On the whole, the Erewhonian system of dealing with criminal conduct is probably no worse or less effective than our own, and might even be better. So was Butler proposing a serious alternative, or was he simply lampooning the ineffectiveness of the British legal system? He’s not a good enough writer for us to be certain.

In Erewhon, owning or using advanced technology is a serious offense. A sage convinced them (some hundreds of years in the past) that machines were liable to evolve faster than humans, and that if technological development continued unchecked, the human race was liable to end up enslaved to machines. This theme foreshadows a considerable amount of science fiction, but Butler didn’t have enough imagination to render it as a story of a high-tech society in which this dire outcome has been realized. He just presents the arguments, and then suggests that the Erewhonians (being the opposite of Britons) were smart enough to heed the warnings of their sage.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps he considered the Erewhonians fools. His writing is not pointed enough to make that clear.

Recommended reading? No, certainly not. But as a curious cultural artifact, Erewhon has points of interest.

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