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In this novel, Butler satirically describes a utopian society, using the civilization of 'Erewhon' ('nowhere,' scrambled) to satirize beliefs popular in the England of his day. Butler wrote a sequel to the novel, Erewhon Revisited.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1872

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About the author

Samuel Butler

835 books165 followers
For the author of Hudibras, see Samuel Butler.

Samuel Butler was an iconoclastic Victorian author who published a variety of works, including the Utopian satire Erewhon and the posthumous novel The Way of All Flesh, his two best-known works, but also extending to examinations of Christian orthodoxy, substantive studies of evolutionary thought, studies of Italian art, and works of literary history and criticism. Butler also made prose translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey which remain in use to this day.

See also: Samuel H. Butcher, Anglo-Irish classicist, who also undertook prose translations of Homer's works (in collaboration with Andrew Lang.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 412 reviews
Profile Image for Chris.
332 reviews
March 3, 2009
Erewhon, as a satire and/or essay, is interesting and has some thought provoking ideas. Erewhon as a novel has a fairly thin but still interesting plot line in an intriguing environment. Unfortunately, meshing the two of these together makes for a difficult book to swallow at times.

I enjoyed the thought provoking elements of the satire that Butler presents. He turns the world upside down in order to have us explore just how "civilized" we truly are. He maintains the same basic structure...that a society should have a government with laws that people can be punished for, education to help them in society, religion to help with their conscience. However, he turns all of these "normal" conventions on their heads to get us to think not about the conventions themselves, but about the way we approach them.

For example, instead of being punished for what we crimes (theft, murder, etc.), the people of Erewhon are punished if they fall physically ill...sometimes being imprisoned or even sentenced to death. And conversely, if a person finds himself in the throes of robbery or some other 'crime', he is instead consoled and properly treated for the recovery of this behavior and looked on with sympathy from friends and family. In this satirical move, Butler asks us to examine our treatment of criminals. The Erewhonians provide rehabilitation for liars, thieves and murderers while simply shutting away those who commit "crimes" of physical illness. While we profess to offer rehabilitation for our criminals, what good does it do to stick them in an 8x8 box for years and then throw them out on the street with a black mark on their "permanent record?" Which system is better for helping with crime? As to illness, the Erewhonian treatment of illness is definitely ludicrous, but to a small degree it has logic in that it quarantines the truly ill and it also cuts down on people feigning illness or complaining over small headaches. In Erewhon, there is truly very little illness and no 'calling in sick', or making an excuse of "I've got a headache."

Butler also satirizes religious devotion (he alludes to religion in terms of the different types of money in the kingdom...the "religious" type having no earthly value yet being esteemed as of great personal worth...and yet citizens of Erewhon barely go through the motions with the 'religious' currency and have a completely different value system for each type of currency).

His lengthiest satirical discourse is with regards to the idea of consciousness. He takes it to the absurd (at least for his day) by suggesting a world in which machines would become self-aware and potentially overthrow mankind as the dominant race (a la Terminator or others). We're not there yet, but I think Butler would have a coronary if he saw how today's technology compared of that ~120 years ago. While the discussion on consciousness has some holes, it's also intriguing, especially when looking at the advancements of the last hundred years. He makes some good arguments and it's interesting to transition those arguments into the natural world and look at the advancements of mankind as a race or of other animals out there. The rise of consciousness or self-awareness is a very interesting topic. I'd be interested to read more of his thoughts since in the book he basically opens the can of worms and sets it on a shelf.

So in terms of the satire, Butler brings forth some interesting ideas.

In terms of the plot, it's a fairly basic adventure novel of the nineteenth century...a man in a distant British colony seeks fame and fortune through exploration and hopefully finding either a place to gain more wealth or to find savages to convert to Christianity or both. The first 50-100 pages contain standard Victorian descriptions of the landscapes and the travels. While poetic and pretty, they did drag on and I wanted to skip beyond them. As our narrator finally gets closer to Erewhon, his travels actually have some drama unfold. Once he finally arrives at the city, he's initially thrown into prison and has some moderate adventure.

The "adventures" he has in the country of Erewhon are very lightweight in terms of adventure. The level of excitement is pretty bland since it is often broken up by dozens of pages of satirical essay exploring strange elements of Erewhonian culture. Again, this is moderately typical of 19th century literature, but I was hoping for a bit more in terms of action within Erewhon itself. The "story" of the book could probably take ~1/3 of the pages (with probably a third of those devoted to description of the countryside and his initial travels) with the remaining 2/3 being devoted to thoughtful discourse on the various absurdities of society.

All in all, this was an interesting and thought provoking book...but I would've preferred the abridged version and/or simply reading the "essays" as essays rather than having them interjected into an adventure novel.

2 1/2 stars
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
February 10, 2011
"I never asked to be born" says a character in The Blind Assassin, and is promptly corrected.

I wonder if Margaret Atwood was thinking of Erewhon. Members of Erewhonian society are all obliged to sign a document at birth admitting that they have chosen to be born of their own free will, and obliging them to indemnify their parents for any trouble it may cause them. Other appealing ideas are the inverted treatment of crime and physical illness: if you embezzle money, you're given medical treatment, but anyone foolish enough to contract pneumonia is sent to jail. It's still a fun read!
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,049 reviews4,116 followers
January 27, 2020
As an adventure narrative, Erewhon is a squib of the damp kind. As a satirical dystopia mocking the hypocrises of Victorian England, Erewhon is a squib of the damp kind. As a slice of narrative entertainment, Erewhon is a squib of the damp kind. As an exploration of a la mode science, encompassing automation, vegetarianism, education, breeding, and the criminal system, Erewhonis a squib of the damp kind. All round, in conclusion, you have to say, my fine haters and lovers, that Erewhon is a damp squib, and even more boring than H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia. Now that is an achievement.
Profile Image for Douglas Summers-Stay.
Author 1 book40 followers
November 5, 2017
I admit I skimmed over a lot of this book. It's a satire about Victorian society and frankly I'm too far removed from a lot of the issues to get much out of his turning them upside down. But the three chapters on machines-- Wow! When I read Dune in the 80s the idea of the "Butlerian Jihad" struck me as a particularly unusual new idea. I never would have believed that the plot of these chapters-- machines evolving through natural and artificial selection into a kind of artificial life, reproducing with the aid of humans like flowers reproduce with the aid of bees, evolving into cyborgs and an alien intelligence far beyond our own but as incomprehensible to us as the thoughts of animals are to plants, and finally being destroyed by humans in order to preserve a place for themselves in the universe-- could have been conceived before 1960, let alone 1860!
Butler already understood that heredity was a form of mechanical information transfer: he called it "unconscious memory." He already saw the exponential improvement in machine complexity and how it would someday surpass human intellectual ability in many ways.
None of his contemporaries understood him; they thought he was making some kind of "ad absurdum" attack on Darwin.
Profile Image for Warren Fournier.
599 reviews73 followers
January 8, 2022
"Erewhon" is another fictious land populated by a lost race discovered by a blonde-haired European who gives us an exhaustive account of their culture and civilization in a critique of Victorian society. I think the Victorian is the most satirized historical era in all of literature. It seems like it would be such a cozy place to live, doing nothing but smoking from briar pipes by the fire in a library of a lush oriental decor while Christmas carols from consumptive waifs drift from outside the frosted window overlooking a gaslit London street. But in reality, it must have been a terrible place to live, especially if you weren't a white male bachelor living off of a considerable trust.

And I guess many agreed due to the popularity of these satires such as "Vril--The Power of The Coming Race" by Bulwer-Lytton (see my review of that title). "Erewhon," published anonymously in 1872, was no exception, except readers seemed to assume it was a sequel to "The Coming Race," and when they found out that Samuel Butler wrote it, sales allegedly dropped 90%. Still, it didn't do all that bad, and spawned an actual sequel of it's own called "Erewhon Revisited."

But does "Erewhon" hold up to modern audiences? Let's take a trip there and find out, shall we?

The opening of the book was based off Butler's own adventures in New Zealand, and though the narrator doesn't tell us the location of "Erewhon," it is assumed to take place there, sure to stimulate the mind's eye of fans of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The narrator is abandoned by his guide who is afraid of the peoples that are said to inhabit the remote land which they are exploring. Soon after, he comes across giant statues with heads carved into wind instruments that make a low howling across the landscape. The narrator is horrified by this. What a pansy.

But before his imagination gets the better of him, he is hailed by the real denizens of this land, and they turn out to be quite friendly. They take him to their country, which appears to be a utopia, though he soon learns that things are far from perfect in Erewhon.

Novels like this are often a mixed bag for me, though I can't recall any that left me completely cold or angry. In fact, I've enjoyed some very much, and have even praised a few. But the people of Erewhon did make me angry. This has to be an example of a civilization too stupid to ever be real.

For example, they sure do take a liberal stance when it comes to accepting malignant willful acts, but punish people for things that are the result of nature, not volition. If someone steals or sets fire to property, they are treated with sympathy and their behaviors remedied by a kind of physician known as the straightener, who is essentially a kind of psychiatrist who prescribes self-inflicted punishments on the criminal by which to prevent them from having such impulses in the future. Yet when someone is actually sick, say with cancer or an infection, this is treated as the most heinous of crimes and punished by imprisonment or hard labor.

And even more absurdly, they blame newborns for inflicting pain and inconvenience to parents. They consider persons to be "pre-born," coming into the world only when they are willful enough to pester their parents to procreate. At the birth, there is a ritualistic chastisement of the infant for their inconsiderate behavior.

And on and on. Musical banks. Colleges of Unreason. The more the author tried to make the civilization absurd, the more absurd the whole book got. No civilization as closely resembling Western culture as Erewhon could be so isolated so as to be completely ignorant of the laws and cultures of nearby countries. Butler tries to playfully say that not a speck of common sense exists in their culture. My response is that then the author has taken things too far. It would be like me writing an overly long satire about a people who believe that sustaining oneself by eating food is immoral. That's not clever. That's stupid. Similarly, no civilization like Erewhon could exist in the first place, so upside down as it is, because they'd destroy themselves with their weird and random punitive policies and beliefs.

OK, I get this is all make-believe. I've consumed a lot of fantasies featuring ridiculous civilizations with goofy beliefs that are meant for satirical purposes, or to provide insights into an alternative way of seeing the world. But stories do this successfully when there is a modicum of grounding in reality. Take "The Stepford Wives" as an example of a believable and engaging satirical society. Though the ideas as presented in that story may be ludicrous at first, they are based on playing forward actual historical and present-day trends that could actually lead to life imitating art if we do not gain self-awareness and shift our trajectory. Douglas Adams was a master at painting ridiculous civilizations for the sake of comedy, but once again, if one thinks about, say, the absurdities of actual real-life bureaucracy, his comedies become funny by how close to reality than can be.

Perhaps we are just too far removed from Victorian society for the average reader of science fiction to appreciate how a story about people who scold babies for being so rude as to be born is at all satire. Now, if you were to say something to the effect of, "Karen is so self-centered and pampered, she even scolded her own baby for the inconvenience of imposing it's own birth," that's actually funny because it makes a point about a real person. The comment is fictional, meant to be a joke, but it is grounded and serves a purpose to convey something about this Karen. What point is Butler making? That people will believe any nonsense? If you know, let me in on the joke please.

And as is often the case with these fictional travelogues, this novel really isn't a novel, being so heavy on exposition and containing very little plot. I have forgiven this in some books where I had become so enthralled with awe over the strangeness or wonders of the alien civilization. But Samuel Butler's delivery here is so very dry, and I didn't find Erewhon as a place or any of it's inhabitants all that compelling. What's more, he has the narrator fall in love with the 14-year-old daughter of his Erewhonian host, Arowhena. Why he decided to also insert a quasi-love story in the middle of this arid desert of a narrative is beyond me, because we have absolutely no sense of any actual relationship between the two, yet suddenly they want to die for each other. It seemed Butler felt he needed to throw in a bit of Victorian melodrama because even he feared the book was getting to dull.

Not that the book is devoid of ANYTHING of interest. There are a few ideas here that gave me something to chew on. Where the novel really peaked my curiosity was in three chapters dedicated to the Erewhonian Book of Machines. Our narrator is shocked to discover that his pocketwatch is deemed offensive to the natives. And why not? Evidently, being born is offensive to these people! But here the reason turns out to be because all machinery was banned from their civilization centuries ago due to fears that machines would evolve to become sentient and surpass humans as the dominant species via natural selection. Even a potato in a dark cellar has latent potential for complex action, quips The Book of Machines. If left alone, the potato will sprout and seek the light. Is this not a kind of machine consciousness?

But Butler became convinced by his own joke that there is latent consciousness in all matter and that the mechanics of evolution is merely the process by which the universe is waking up. This is some heady stuff, and a very early example of this theme appearing in scientific romances. I believe this is the main reason "Erewhon" is remembered out of myriad of similar utopias and dystopias. It is this section alone that is worth reading. In fact, the level of ingenious thought and artistry found here is so vastly different from the rest of the book that it feels like a separate work shoehorned into an inferior one. So if you are a fan of "Dune" and wondered what the "Butlerian jihad" against machines was all about, here is your source.

Overall, this wasn't the best or the most thought-provoking of the subgenre, but there is some meat on these bones which should still enjoy readership today. I would rank The Book of Machines chapters by themselves at least four stars, if not five. But as a whole, I'm afraid "Erewhon" just didn't work for me.

SCORE: Two singing bankers.
Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 2 books2,952 followers
April 26, 2023
Maybe 3.5. Sort of fascinating but not one to read if you're after a plot.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,042 followers
October 8, 2020
I read this with the Evolution of SF group. It's our proto-SF read this month (Oct2020).
It's a satire with the conventions of his time & place (England, 1872) being flipped backward (The title is 'Nowhere' written backward.), his first book. It's a very quick sketch with very little characterization, but a lot of philosophy that should have been interesting or funny, but left me cold until almost the end. I kept feeling as if there was a joke in there somewhere, but I was just too stupid to see it. Maybe I am. Perhaps it was just indifference to the subject matter (Musical banks with currency that's worthless?) or English humor. Monty Python puts me to sleep. Whatever, I found it either boring or too ludicrous to care about it.

Chapters 23-26 were about "The Book of the Machines", part of the Erewhon heritage of giving up most technology & the reasons for doing so. I found the reasoning behind senses, vegetarianism, & evolution incredibly modern. I'm currently reading a Our Senses: An Immersive Experience, a nonfiction book, & I was floored to hear practically the same take on them in both books.

The book only has 29 chapters & they're all fairly short, so the last few flew by. I managed to finish it which I doubted I would at chapter 22. All told, I guess it was worth reading for the ideas in presented. Some have been used since, so it is definitely a foundational novel for SF. For that, I'm really tempted to give it 3 stars, but I didn't like it much, so it's only getting 2.

This is not the correct edition. I'm listening to the free Librivox edition here:
There are half a dozen narrators & most are very good. Those that weren't only did a chapter or two. Well worth listening to. I don't think I would have made it through the text.
Profile Image for Elene ⭐️ Figuer.
130 reviews45 followers
April 16, 2023
"Erewhon" se considera hoy día un libro distópico primigenio de su género. Aunque en su época fue definido como obra filosófica.

Bien analizado, a mí se me asemeja más a una especie de "mago de oz", "Alicia" o "viajes de Gulliver", algo así como un relato que busca el punto de vista más absurdo para hacer crítica de la época. Mejor dicho, es un ponerlo todo del revés hasta el punto más extremo. El propio título es la inversión de la palabra "Nowhere", y lo mismo ocurre con los nombres de algunos personajes (Yram==Mary, Senoj Nosnibor==Robinson Jones...). Así se pone del revés todo lo concerniente a la sociedad de Erewhon (los enfermos son tratados como delincuentes, los delincuentes como enfermos...) como crítica satírica a la sociedad inglesa de la época.

El propio autor comenta en el prólogo que el libro no fue gestado como tal sino que une varios trabajos que fueron publicados independientemente y a posteriori hilvanados en forma de libro además de que en sucesivas ediciones han sido revisados y aumentados (en un tránsito de treinta años).

De hecho, existe incluso una secuela del libro, algo así como un "Retorno a Erewhon".

Erewhon no es un libro de acción, está escrito en forma de diario de viaje y carece de diálogos entre los personajes.

A grandes rasgos se trata de un joven que marcha de Inglaterra para hacer fortuna en tierras colonizadas por el imperio de la época y, si bien el plan no resulta como lo ideó, regresa para dar forma de libro a su diario de viaje y plantear a los lectores un proyecto de inversión: ... creo haber hecho un descubrimiento que, si puedo ser el primero en sacarle provecho, me ha de valer una recompensa que sobrepase todo cómputo en dinero y una posición sólo alcanzada por quince o dieciséis personas desde la creación del universo...

Y en este diario va anotando las observaciones sobre los diferentes aspectos de la sociedad erewhoniana, sus leyes, las interrelaciones sociales, la economía, la religión... La historia que hilvana estas observaciones es la llegada, estancia y marcha del protagonista de Erewhon con sus correspondientes vicisitudes.

La parte más destacada de la novela son los dos capítulos que forman "El libro de las máquinas", una advertencia sobre la adquisición de las máquinas que conciencia propia y su dominación sobre el hombre.

Destaco además el tono de humor (por lo absurdo) en que está escrito este libro y aquí dejo de muestra uno de mis párrafos más delirantes, una especie de "contrato de nacimiento" que deben firmar los recién nacidos para eximir a sus progenitores de toda culpa:

Profile Image for Anna.
1,737 reviews673 followers
October 26, 2017
Despite a truly impressive level of irony throughout, ‘Erewhon’ takes a lot more effort to read than I expected for such a short book. There are several reasons for this, the most important being the deeply annoying narrator. While he is almost certainly meant to be annoying, this fact in no way detracts from the overall annoyance. Seventy pages pass before he even gets to the mysterious lost civilisation of Erewhon, during which time the reader gets mighty tired of Victorian colonialist attitudes. Rapacious greed is complemented by ugly racism and patronising hypocrisy. From the perspective of nearly 150 years later, it’s very difficult to tell how much of this is parody and how much sincere. From the introduction (read last, as ever), this has always been a problem with Butler’s work, given his tendency to argue both sides. It obviously isn’t necessary to know the author’s intentions, however it’s also depressing to contemplate how realistic the narrator’s perspective may have seemed in the 1870s.

‘Erewhon’ became a more interesting and worthwhile read in the latter half, when attempts at travelogue are largely abandoned in favour of lectures on Erewhon’s ideological and social idiosyncrasies. Butler has no gift for plotting or characterisation, but some of his absurdist philosophisification is genuinely fascinating. I also found the sting in the tail shocking.

Here’s an example of Butler making me wonder to what extent he was being ironic:

Who shall limit the right of society except society itself? And what consideration for the individual is tolerable unless society is the gainer thereby? Wherefore should a man be so richly rewarded for having been son to a millionaire, were it not clearly provable that the common welfare is thus better furthered? We cannot serious detract from a man’s merit in having been the son of a rich father without imperilling our own tenure of things which we do not wish to jeopardise; if this were otherwise we should not let him keep his money for a single hour; we would have it ourselves at once. For property is robbery, but then, we are all robbers or would-be robbers together, and have found it essential our thieving, as we have found it necessary to organise our lust and our revenge.

Conversely, here is an example of where I was more confident of parodic intent, yet Butler managed to prefigure current debates about mechanisation and AI in a manner that verges on uncanny:

I would repeat that I fear none of the existing machines; what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something very different to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we still can check it? [...] We cannot calculate on any corresponding advance in man’s intellectual or physical powers which shall be a set-off against the far greater development which seems in store for the machines. Some people may say that man’s moral influence will suffice to rule them; but I cannot think it will ever be safe to repose such much trust in the moral sense of any machine.

There is some interesting philosophical wrangling to be found in here, unfortunately you have to dig for it rather. I also get the impression that Butler would be one of those irritating conversation partners who insists on perpetually playing devil’s advocate for no good reason. This vintage dystopia includes some clever ideas, although the modern reader can easily get frustrated by the manner of their expression.
Profile Image for Sunny.
755 reviews36 followers
October 1, 2017
Good overall. The book is about a young dude who gets lost in the far realms of England somewhere and stumbles on a passing in a mountain which is seemingly impenetrable but somehow he manages to get through and in a scene similar to the Lost World by Conan Doyle he comes to a new and seemingly untouched land. This land isn’t untouched however and is inhabited by a race of humans and clearly sentient beings who have developed laws, and cultures and customs and ways of living almost completely polar to the ones in England at the time that the book was written (1872). There the protagonist is greeted at first with trepidation but eventually manages to live and get along with the inhabitants for a considerable period of time. He eventually escapes by means of a hot air balloon (reminded me of Dorothy escaping from wizard of Oz) with a lady he had fallen in love with in Erewhon (the name of this strange land which some of the sharp eyed amongst you will notice is almost like “nowhere” spelt backwards. There were some really interesting things that Butler brings up as the norm in Erewhon which fascinated me:
• Erewhonian children are taught hypothetics. This was the study of what could possibly be based not only on the facts and data that surrounded individuals in that country but also the “study” of what could hypothetically be based on the children’s imagination. I thought that would be an incredibly interesting subject or discipline to teach children and a way for them to challenge the norms (clearly one of the hidden messages of this book) and think well outside of the box.
• In Erewhon if you are ill you are sent to prison and if you commit a criminal act you are taken to hospital. The former part smacked of Eugenics but the later made sense in a strange way. Instead of incarcerating their criminals Erewhonians would instead send them to hospital because the thinking was that no one in his right mind would commit a crime in Erewhon because that would be deleterious to his own well-being and soul and the wellbeing and soul of the state itself. Criminals were treated with a compassion which our society would find very hard to fathom.
• Machinery was almost completely forbidden in Erewhon. Butler must clearly have been a bit of a Luddite because in Erewhon almost all machinery has been banned. Butler was a little ahead of his times and foresaw the damaging effects that technological progression had the potential to have on society and individuals today. In Erewhon the protagonist is found to have a watch and is put in prison for that and suspected of being a miscreant for a long time.
Profile Image for John.
449 reviews5 followers
August 23, 2008
Here's an old one about a dystopic society. In this tale, a European visitor stumbles upon Erewhon, a society hidden up in the mountains of some unspecified continent. The story itself is short - the visitor falls in love with a native, gets in trouble with authorities when his novelty begins to fade, and attempts his escape. The book is much longer than the actual plot, because the narrator spends a lot of time explaining the peculiar conventions of Erewhon, which are obvious satires of important European beliefs. This gets very tedious because the book, written as a memoir, reads like anthropology instead of a story. It took me a long time to finish it because I wasn't enjoying it at all. Maybe I missed something?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Janelle.
1,214 reviews164 followers
December 11, 2022
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this book and while I mostly enjoyed the writing, the long tracts on the Erewhonians banking system, and their anti machine and other religious beliefs just goes on and on in quite a tedious way. I also didn’t like the narrator, he’s so sure that his own beliefs are correct, the vision of beauty is ridiculously Eurocentric etc etc, there’s plenty for a modern reader to pick apart. But it is influential, Herbert named the Butlerian jihad after the author for example. I did find the end just so amazing, the narrator plans to !! Crazy. So this book is not a great read for me but it is important in the scheme of utopian/dystopian writing.
Profile Image for Clint.
5 reviews
February 10, 2010
Eh. Ehhh! I was not impressed. Okay, I get it is a satire of Victorian society, but seriously I felt like I was getting beat over the head with how blatant the satire was. Samuel Butler tried to squeeze in much more than there was room for. It could have been a solid read, but I just wasn't feeling it. Compared to other authors of that time, it just doesn't compare. And don't even get me started on the Book of the Machines and the Rights of Animals and Vegetables...it just dove into a death spiral from that point.
Profile Image for Love of Hopeless Causes.
721 reviews51 followers
August 20, 2017
Does not respect the reader's time. Dude looks for better land. Now you can skip to Chapter Four. It's about the half-hour mark on audiobooks which contain the first two prefaces such as the Librivox recording. I'm abandoning it here, since I sense this will not rate more than a three star review, even if I complete it--since it's some chunky caramel essays wrapped in a thin layer of plot.
Profile Image for Lily.
65 reviews
December 17, 2019
After much polite side-stepping despite comically running into this book in several other works I read in this past year, I finally sat down and finished it. It's a relatively short novel and by no means a literary masterpiece; It's not difficult to get through in one or two sittings. I'm not sure if being aware of the context and implications that Fisher, Deleuze-Guattari, Latour and many more offer for this book is a good thing before going into it, but there was nothing I could do about that.

Erewhon is, as anyone would tell you, a satirical novel about Victorian society. It's the story of an unsuspecting narrator passing through the fictional realm of Erewhon, a dystopian land with various strange societal mores. In the most interesting chapters of the book (Book of the Machines) we learn that the people in Erewhon have voluntarily destroyed all advanced machines and have kept none but the simplest tools. According to the inhabitants of Erewhon, a cataclysmic process of Darwinian evolution might allow a simple timepiece to give birth to monsters that would rule over humans. The most compelling part of the book is Butler's view on the relationship between humans and machines and the ability of machines to propagate themselves. In short, the fact that human beings are involved in the reproduction of machines does not mean that they lack a reproductive system: on the contrary, human beings are essentially a part of the machinic reproductive system.

Surely if a machine is able to reproduce another machine systematically, we may say that it is a reproductive system. What is a reproductive system, if it not be a system for reproduction? And how few of the machines are there which have not been produced systematically by other machines? But it is man that makes them do so. Yes; but is it not insects that make many of the plants reproductive, and would not whole families of plants not die out if their fertilization was not effected by a class of agents utterly foreign to themselves? Does any one say that the red clover has no reproductive system because the humble bee (and the humble bee only) must aid and abet it before it can reproduce? No one. The humble bee is a part of the reproductive system of the clover. Each one of ourselves has sprung from minute animalcules whose identity was entirely distinct from our own, and which acted after their kind with no thought or heed of what we might think about it. These little creatures are part of our own reproductive system; then why not we part of that of the machines?

This, as it turns out, is heavily laden with philosophical implications. Through this compelling concept and the interesting arguments Butler puts forth, this book serves as a work of theory-fiction that has inspired cybernetic philosophy and challenged vitalism. Of course the story is much more imbued with caution and warning, directly inspired by the Gothic social atmosphere surrounding Darwinism, and it is devoid of any kind of cyberpunk jouissance that can be found in later philosophical works that it inspired; But the blueprint of some tenets of the subsequent cybernetic philosophy can be found within the text and it serves as a good introduction to them.

Profile Image for MisterFweem.
346 reviews15 followers
October 14, 2009
Pardon me, but the English geek inside me is coming out. Remember as Dave Barry said, if you can easily come up with idiot interpretations of novels, you should major in English. I majored in journalism, meaning I could easily come up with idiot interpretations of news events. Same thing.

So here’s my idiot interpretation of Samuel Butler’s contribution to Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Herbert, author of the Dune novels, may have taken the name of Butler and the idea of a societal rebellion against machines from Butler’s novel Erewhon into Herbert’s books as the Butlerian Jihad, in which sentient robots and thinking machines were banned, with the ensuing chaos and violence that the word jihad implies. This is certainly not an original thought, as many Dune enthusiasts (I hesitate to call them scholars, since there are no endowed chairs, at least that I know of, for the pupose of literary study of the Herbert canon, though it would not surprise me at all to find someone, several someones, who have focused on Herbert in masters or doctoral theses. I'll bet Comic Book Guy would have a few words to say on the subject.) have also come to the same conclusion. There’s a lot of disagreement, however, most of it superficial, such as this.

I believe there is strong evidence that supports Herbert’s drawing on Butler’s name and Erewhonian philosophy as background for the Butlerian Jihad.

Butler’s Erewhonians believed that an overreliance on machines would weaken humanity and cause natural selection to stumble in allowing weaker humans, aided by machines, to continue contributing to the gene pool. This belief is in line with the criminalization of illness in Erewhon, where diseases of the body were treated as crimes and justly punished, while what we consider to be crimes – embezzlement, tax evasion – are tolerated under Erewhonian law as proof that the minds that performed such activities are stronger than those that do not, pushing the drive to succeed by any means above the drive to succeed honestly.

In addition, Butler’s Erewhonian scholar writes:

The misery is that man has been blind so long already. In his reliance upon the use of steam, he has been betrayed into increasing and multiplying. To withdraw steam power suddenly will not have the effect of reducing us to the state in which we were before its introduction; there will be a general break-up and time of anarchy such as has never been known; it will be as though our population were suddenly doubled, with no additional means of feeding the increased number. The air we breathe is hardly more necessary for our animal life than the use of any machine, on the strength of which we have increased our numbers, is to our civilization; it is the machines which act upon man and make him man, as much as man who has acted upon and made the machines; but we must choose between the alternative of undergoing much present suffering, or seeing ourselves gradually superseded by our own creatures till we rank no higher in comparison with them, than the beasts of the field with ourselves.

Here we see the roots of and consequences of Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad. Erewhonians feared overreliance on steam. Herbert’s empire-dwellers feared the overreliance on thinking machines. Despite the fact that withdrawing the steam/thinking machines all at once would introduce a period of anarchy, both the Erewhonians and Herbert’s people chose war, rather than continue to become subject to the machines they created. Both there Erewhonians and Herbert’s people prepared alternatives – Erewhonians relied solely on men, judged by horse-power, to accomplish the work of the steam-engines; Herbert’s people used the mentats. But both in Erewhon and in the Empire, overreliance on machine became overreliance on the “machine” built to replace the machine, leading to the same general conditions the rejection of machinery and the jihad were meant to overcome.

Not until mélange is made synthetically – and never in Erewhon – is the paradigm shifted enough to bring about another revolution.
Profile Image for Tommy Carlson.
156 reviews4 followers
January 16, 2015
For some reason I no longer remember, I decided to read Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race. It's a bit of utopian fiction that came out in 1871. It describes an adventurer stumbling onto an unknown civilization. The protagonist describes the people and society, falls in love with a woman, and attempts to escape when the society endangers him.

Later, I learned of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, published the very next year. It describes an adventurer stumbling onto an unknown civilization. The protagonist describes the people and society, falls in love with a woman, and attempts to escape when the society endangers him.

So, let's say there's some similarity here. Butler, in a later version's forward, assures the reader that his book was written without any knowledge of the other.

It's difficult to believe that this book was written at the same time as The Coming Race. Although there really isn't much plot here either, the delivery feels fresh, the language almost modern. I actually cared about the protagonist.

The society itself is a reversal of real-world society, for the purposes of satire. It's not really meant to represent a real alternative society. (The reversal goes to the extent of forming proper names by near-reversals of normal words and names. "Erewhon" is nearly "nowhere" in reverse.) As with The Coming Race, the middle consists of essays. However, instead of being dry, they're lively and chuckle-worthy. Some of the targets of the satire flew by me. Either I'm not smart enough or the targets themselves are strictly of another time. (Most likely the former.) There's a wonderful trio of chapters detailing the dangers of technology. It's not far off from some of the concerns you hear today regarding artificial intelligence. The section on children is simply hilarious.

The plot aspects are wrapped up quickly at the end, mostly just as a means of getting the protagonist into a position to be able to hand over the narrative to the reader. This book isn't a novel. It's essays wrapped in just enough plot to justify itself.
Profile Image for Ed Erwin.
956 reviews97 followers
October 20, 2020
This book does eventually end, but for a long time it feels like it never will. If you think this book has too much unnecessary padding, the author agrees! In a preface he states that when creating the "revised" edition he wanted to remove about 50 pages. Instead, in order to maintain copyright protection, he added 50 pages. If we could go back to the original version, it might be more bearable. Even better, since it is now public domain, someone could shorten it or adapt it to a graphic novel.

There are some interesting and funny ideas in the book. But it just drags on and on and delivers the ideas in the most boring ways possible. Plus, it is satirizing ideas that were in the air in Victorian England which just aren't as relevant today. There is still some use in exploring the friction between science and religion or between religion and commerce, but not much use to us now talking about whether it is still useful for school children to be forced to learn Greek and Latin, for example.

The sequel, Erewhon Revisited, is a bit better. It is mostly a satirical allegory about the idea that St. Paul corrupted the teachings of Jesus, which was a current debate when it was written. It still is long-winded, but not nearly as long. I read the sequel first, as any true Erewhonian would do, and it can easily be understood without reading the original, though it is probably more fun to simply read a selection of quotations from it.
13 reviews
July 7, 2008
So, I finally finished this 200 page book that I started reading in October! Well, although it took me a long time to get through the book, I think it was worth it. The thing is, it is a very, very thoughtful book - certainly not a light read, so I couldn't read it unless I really had the free time and energy to concentrate. And, if I didn't get through a chapter in one sitting, I usually had to start if over later because I couldn't follow the chapter otherwise. AT ANY RATE, I found this book to be incredibly interesting. It was written during the 1870s (published 1872) and is considered a satire of the [then] modern day English society. However, there are a lot of themes in the book that hold true today. Butler uses this fictional society (Erewhon) to discuss human nature, the good and the bad. In Erewhon, machines are outlawed, for fear that they may take over the society. Additionally, being sick/diseases is considered a crime punishable by imprisonment, while committing what WE consider to be crimes - such as stealing/damaging the property of others - is considered an illness for which one is sent to a hospital. There are many, many other interesting points of discussion in the book on subjects ranging from physical beauty to pregnancy to the rights of plants and animals. Another note I'd like to make is that it is clear in the book that Butler was very familiar with works by Darwin (with the Origin of Species having been published in 1859). I'd love to discuss the book with other who have read it!
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,115 reviews112 followers
November 5, 2020
This is an early SF from 1872, which is more a satire and philosophy than ‘true’ SF. I read is as a part of monthly reading for October 2020 at The Evolution of Science Fiction group.

This is a rather short book, that consists of roughly two parts. In the first part (around 1/3rd of the book) the protagonist travels to a distant land in an expectation of glory and wealth from ‘opening’ new lands. The rest of the story describes a far-away land of Erewhon (Nowhere), where people live and act the way opposite to the Author’s period Europe. Among the themes:
- Anti-technology. The most interesting part, based on Darwin’s evolution theory, which states that in biology the development is gradual and long, in mechanics it is fast, therefore machines will out-develop us. This is the earliest (I’m aware of) fear of machines’ revolution
- Anti-reason. Assuming that more unreason creates more reason, local scientists spend their lives in pursuing unneeded research.
- Souls not leave bodies after death, but enter newborn bodies
Overall, interesting ideas but extremely boringly written.
Profile Image for Sam.
170 reviews
August 9, 2015
A Utopian society that is (almost) the inverse of ours. Such is the isolated country of Erewhon which the narrator stumbles upon. What follows is a satirical philosophic view of a society that has progressed - or regressed? - along lines different than our own path.

What I love most about this novel is the author's devices to put forth ideas from differing perspectives. And though it was first published in 1872, the novel still resounds deeply with modern life; perhaps even more so now than when it was first published. After all, regardless of time period, regardless of ethnic background, regardless of political and religious stripe, human nature is human nature.

Profile Image for Wreade1872.
708 reviews165 followers
April 29, 2016
Social satire tale bookended by the adventure sections needed to travel to and from Erewhon (aka nowhere). These sections i found slow going but can't quite figure out why. The satire elements have some GREAT ideas. The author has a wonderful way of making you think by showing things in an absurd light. Also theres some amazing stuff about the fear of machines rising up and taking over, remember this is 1872!!!!. Eat your heart our James Cameron.
Profile Image for Joy.
677 reviews
November 6, 2022
It has been a long time (decades, in fact) since I’ve read Samuel Butler. In the meantime, I’ve become much more familiar with the utopian texts of early English literature. In Erewhon, Butler gives us an exceptional example of the genre.

It has many similarities, but a better prose flow than Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, or Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps with this 150th anniversary release, Butler’s utopia will take its rightful place alongside the others in classrooms and in personal libraries.

Thank you to the Samuel Butler scholars, Erewhon Books, and NetGalley for an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Sophia.
139 reviews10 followers
September 9, 2012
The story is narrated by Higgs, looking back on the great adventure of his life in a strange land. As a young man, Higgs travelled to one of the British colonies, which he doesn't expressly name, but which sounds a lot like New Zealand (where Samuel Butler spent time as a youth). Here, Higgs found work on one of the large sheep stations in the interior of the country, at the limits of the region hitherto explored by the British and up against a seemingly impassable mountain range. Higgs feels sure that there are great tracts of fertile pasture just beyond the mountains and imagines the wealth that could be his if he is the first to discover them, so he sets off - ignoring the protests of his unwilling native guide who warns him of terrible dangers ahead.

After many hardships and struggles, Higgs finds a narrow pass through the mountains, though his guide soon runs off and leaves him to it. On the other side he finds a wondrous civilisation of beautiful people, lovely architecture and harmonious living. Could this be a Utopia? Well, though at first glance everything seems perfect in Erewhon - as the country is named - once Higgs starts to settle in, learn the language and get to grips with the Erewhonian customs, he discovers some surprising and disturbing differences between their culture and his own.

I really wanted to love this book, and at first I did. Higgs's journey across the mountains is entertaining and the discovery of a lost civilisation makes for some great reading. But once Higgs got to Erewhon the story stalled completely and the largest middle section of the book is entirely given over to a detailed description of their way of life.

Butler basically uses the premise of an imagined society to satirise Victorian attitudes to religion, money, and society in general. However, you need a pretty good knowledge of the period to understand many of the points Butler is making and it wasn't until I consulted Wikipedia after finishing Erewhon that much of it became clear. Butler does sometimes labour his points, and his motto seems to be "why say something in one sentence when you can drag it out for a whole chapter?" I have to confess to skimming some bits where I realised Butler was just reiterating things he'd already said. The book picks up again towards the end once Higgs's analysis has finally finished and he continues with the story, but by that time I'm afraid I had lost interest.

On the plus side, he did have an amazing imagination for the time and there's a section about the possible evolution of machines which is very relevant in the computer-dominated world of today. This is the section which Scarlett Thomas alluded to in The End of Mr Y, and it's mainly this that inclines people to categorise Erewhon as a very early example of science fiction.

I'm glad I read this very proto-sci-fi tale, if only as a curiosity-sating exercise, but I don't think I'll be rushing to read the sequel, Return to Erewhon.
Profile Image for Dylan McIntosh.
134 reviews9 followers
July 3, 2011
My favorite section from the book was:

“Why,” asked one Professor, “should a man want to be better than his neighbours?  Let him be thankful if he is no worse.”

I ventured feebly to say that I did not see how progress could be made in any art or science, or indeed in anything at all, without more or less self-seeking, and hence unamiability.

“Of course it cannot,” said the Professor, “and therefore we object to progress.”

I absolutely loved this book when it was in fiirst person as you read from the journal, however much of this was written a general discussion of theories of the fictiotious Erewhon. The story telling reminding me of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, the "translations" tended to loose me as my focus wandered.

However, Butler brings up some interesting concepts of a Utopian society. What if your well being was based exclusively on your appearance? It was a crime to embezzle or steal, however a common cold could land you in prison. A child will be killed if unable to be a commercial value to their parents in a early age.

Over all, an enjoyable book, just wish there would have been story and less "translations".
Profile Image for Jill.
425 reviews223 followers
July 18, 2015
Sci-fi folks take note: everybody owes a debt to Samuel Butler.

I've been trying to decide whether Erewhon deserves 3 or 4 stars for a couple hours now, and I think that's the thought that tipped the scales for me.

As a satirical, philosophical novel of ideas, this shit is on point. At times, despite the very 19C prose, it felt like reading commentary from Orwell, Ray Kurzweil (if he was a bit saner), or even Harlan Ellison -- sharp, current, and snarky. The call for critical thinking is one to which I am particularly attuned, given the teaching thing, and I found myself mostly engrossed in the intricacies and allegories.

That said -- it's not a great novel, proper (except for the hilariously sanctimonious voice of the narrator/protagonist). Several sections were tedious, a few were made too obvious, and overall there wasn't much plot -- but enh. It was too smart for only 3 stars, in the end, and more fun than I thought it'd be.
Profile Image for John Anthony.
764 reviews97 followers
September 11, 2019
I hate giving up on a book but after reading half of this I can't take any more.

Fantasy is fine but this doesn't work for me. It reminds me of a Victorianised Gullivers Travels.

Perhaps it's very clever, funny stuff. If so, it's lost on me.
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