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Erewhon Paperback – August 28, 2008
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Imagine, if you will, a ship where a young sheep farmer, who is the narrator of this story and the protagonist, whose name is never given, arriving at an imaginary continent. It’s not Australia, and not exactly Asia, but he lands there and settles in a colony, in a coastal town. He then explores the region with a native guide, named Chowbok, but wanders into mountain passes, gorges, and rivers and valleys.
After many struggles, Chowbok deserts him out of fear, and then the traveler comes across a hidden society called Erewhon. The people there take him in and he learns to adjust, learning the language and customs. The customs prove more outlandish than one can imagine.
There is very little plot to this story, with a predictable outcome, since the narrator writes in the past tense and reveals very early that he escaped from Erewhon with his newly betrothed fiancee. This is a surprise twist at the end of the book that reflects the British mentality during the time of the Empire.
Where the book really stands out is the description of a society that is, to the reader, completely upside-down, morals, customs, and all. However, if the reader looks closely, he can see many comparisons with where we are today as a society, and there are many similarities, to the reader’s disbelief.
Erewhon spelt backwards (except for the “WH”) is Nowhere, and this describes the book perfectly.
This is a society where being sick is a crime, punishable with a jail sentence. Thieves and murderers, on the other hand, are treated with compassion, sent to a hospital for treatment, and sometimes assigned a “straightener.” Technology is shunned, and machinery was banned over two centuries prior to this story. Three chapters are dedicated to the evils of machinery and why it was banned. Our hero was caught was a watch, which was confiscated and put into a museum with other broken machines while he received a jail sentence until a family took him into their home.
The “Musical Bank” is like a church or a court, though the only “religion” is self-respect and consideration for others. What you are depends on what you did in your “last life” (reincarnation). Parents are not responsible for their children’s behavior, but they can kill their child. Children have what they need without having to work for it. If a man makes over 20,000 pounds (British currency) a year, he is exempt from taxation.
People are educated at the “College of Unreason.” Students are taught the absurd and illogical, evasions of situations, inconsistencies, the suppression of mental growth, no competition with others and for everyone to think like everyone else.
Does this seem like a fantasyland, or maybe a traveler playing the role of an “Alice” in a “Wonderland?”
Look again! Observe the hospitals taking people’s life savings after a catastrophic illness, or insurance companies refusing insurance for those with known illnesses. Read about violent criminals being protected from other criminals and severe punishments with their lawyers trying, and succeeding in obtaining very lenient jail time.
Taxes are constantly being lowered on the very rich, with some not paying any taxes at all.
We are presently in great fear of artificial intelligence overtaking us, and computer technology is being used to watch people in an Orwellian fashion. Other technologies are making people lazy and physically out of shape, like the automobile and labor saving devices, being the reason why Erewhonian banned machinery in the first place.
Don’t forget our many religious cults, or a lack of religion and morals.
The College of Unreason is a good match for our educational system today and what we are teaching our youth, such as telling a student that “nothing is his fault” thereby evading responsibility for his actions.
Samuel Butler seems to have predicted where society was headed. Back in 1872, with the British Empire at its peak, Victorian society had the strictest standards of behavior for all of its citizens. Yet Butler seem to have sensed something, a change in values, that Victorian society back then could not have foreseen.
Erewhon is a satire of today’s society, an embellishment, sort of an editorial cartoon, if you will, of society in the late 20th and early 21st century.
The question remains; was Butler imagining what one would think as a “Wonderland” or was he foreseeing what the society, then and now, was becoming?
Read the book, observe the society around you, then decide.
The reason people remember Butler is the warning about machines supplanting man, chap. 23-25, and the general ban on their development. This seems less fictional today, given recent pronouncements on AI weapons. “Make no machine in the likeness of a human mind,” is the prohibition in Frank Herbert’s Dune, attributed to an anti-AI rebellion called the Butlerian Jihad.
Superhuman machines are now hugely popular in science fiction. I would not recommend Erewhon, except for its historical value. Plus, it’s short.