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The first edition cover of Erewhon
|Followed by||Erewhon Revisited|
The first edition cover of Erewhon
|Followed by||Erewhon Revisited|
Erewhon: or, Over the Range is a novel by Samuel Butler which was first published anonymously in 1872. The title is also the name of a country, supposedly discovered by the protagonist. In the novel, it is not revealed where Erewhon is, but it is clear that it is a fictional country. Butler meant the title to be read as "nowhere" backwards even though the letters "h" and "w" are transposed. The book is a satire on Victorian society.
The first few chapters of the novel dealing with the discovery of Erewhon are in fact based on Butler's own experiences in New Zealand where, as a young man, he worked as a sheep farmer on Mesopotamia Station for about four years (1860–1864), and explored parts of the interior of the South Island and which he wrote about in his A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863).
One of New Zealand's largest sheep stations located near where Butler lived is named "Erewhon" in his honour.
In the preface to the first edition of his book, Butler specified that the "author wishes it to be understood that Erewhon is pronounced as a word of three syllables, all short ‒ thus, E-re-whon." Nevertheless, the word is occasionally pronounced with two syllables as "air-one".
The greater part of the book consists of a description of Erewhon. The nature of this nation is intended to be ambiguous. At first glance, Erewhon appears to be a Utopia, yet it soon becomes clear that this is far from the case. Yet for all the failings of Erewhon, it is also clearly not a dystopia, such as that depicted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. As a satirical utopia, Erewhon has sometimes been compared to Gulliver's Travels (1726), a classic novel by Jonathan Swift; the image of Utopia in this latter case also bears strong parallels with the self-view of the British Empire at the time. It can also be compared to the William Morris novel, News from Nowhere.
Erewhon satirises various aspects of Victorian society, including criminal punishment, religion and anthropocentrism. For example, according to Erewhonian law, offenders are treated as if they were ill whilst ill people are looked upon as criminals. Another feature of Erewhon is the absence of machines; this is due to the widely shared perception by the Erewhonians that they are potentially dangerous. This last aspect of Erewhon reveals the influence of Charles Darwin's evolution theory; Butler had read On the Origin of Species soon after it was published in 1859.
Butler developed the three chapters of Erewhon that make up "The Book of the Machines" from a number of articles that he had contributed to The Press, which had just begun publication in Christchurch, New Zealand, beginning with "Darwin among the Machines" (1863). Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection. Many dismissed this as a joke; but, in his preface to the second edition, Butler wrote, "I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin's theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin."
After its first release, this book sold far better than any of Butler's other works[clarification needed], perhaps because the British public assumed that the anonymous author was some better-known figure (the favourite being Lord Lytton, who had published The Coming Race two years previously). In a 1945 broadcast, George Orwell praised the book and said that when Butler wrote Erewhon it needed "imagination of a very high order to see that machinery could be dangerous as well as useful." He recommended the novel, though not its sequel, Erewhon Revisited.
Today scientists and philosophers seriously debate whether computers and robots could develop a kind of consciousness (artificial intelligence, AI), and organic interaction (artificial life) similar to or exceeding that of human beings. This is also a popular theme in science-fiction novels and movies; some raise the same question (Dune's "Butlerian Jihad", for example, which was named such as a reference to Erewhon), while others explore what the relationship between human beings and machines with artificial intelligence would be, and even whether AI is desirable. However, it should be noted that Butler wrote of machines developing consciousness by natural selection, not artificially, although machine algorithms are approaching a level of autonomy which could be considered natural.[when?]
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze used ideas from Butler's book at various points in the development of his philosophy of difference. In Difference and Repetition (1968), Deleuze refers to what he calls "Ideas" as "erewhons." "Ideas are not concepts," he explains, but rather "a form of eternally positive differential multiplicity, distinguished from the identity of concepts." "Erewhon" refers to the "nomadic distributions" that pertain to simulacra, which "are not universals like the categories, nor are they the hic et nunc or now here, the diversity to which categories apply in representation." "Erewhon," in this reading, is "not only a disguised no-where but a rearranged now-here."
In his collaboration with Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (1972), Deleuze draws on Butler's "The Book of the Machines" to "go beyond" the "usual polemic between vitalism and mechanism" as it relates to their concept of "desiring-machines":
For one thing, Butler is not content to say that machines extend the organism, but asserts that they are really limbs and organs lying on the body without organs of a society, which men will appropriate according to their power and their wealth, and whose poverty deprives them as if they were mutilated organisms. For another, he is not content to say that organisms are machines, but asserts that they contain such an abundance of parts that they must be compared to very different parts of distinct machines, each relating to the others, engendered in combination with the others...He shatters the vitalist argument by calling in question the specific or personal unity of the organism, and the mechanist argument even more decisively, by calling in question the structural unity of the machine.
A reference to Erewhon and specifically "The Book of Machines" opens Miguel de Unamuno's short story, "Mecanópolis,". This story was written in Spanish and tells of a man who visits a city (called Mecanópolis) which is inhabited solely by machines.
Fritz Leiber's extensive «Tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser», written mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, take place on a world called Nehwon ("No When" backwards), a homage to Butler as well as a reference to the occasional contemporary and futuristic elements added to the medieval milieu of the stories.
In Anne McCaffrey's 1988 novel Nimisha's Ship, the heroine Nimisha is pulled through a wormhole to the far side of the galaxy, and names the planet she settles on "Erehwon" in reference to an "old earth story" that several characters try, but fail, to remember. McCaffrey does not transpose the "h" and "w" as did Butler.
In David Weber's Honorverse series, the planet Erewhon was initially settled by interstellar criminals as a front for organised crime, with many of its place names referencing 21st century laundry appliances.
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