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First edition cover
|Followed by||Erewhon Revisited|
First edition cover
|Followed by||Erewhon Revisited|
Erewhon: or, Over the Range is a novel by Samuel Butler, 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 the word Nowhere backwards, even though the letters "h" and "w" are transposed, therefore Erewhon is an anagram of nowhere. 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 the country'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:
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 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:
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (May 2011)|
|This section describes a work or element of fiction in a primarily in-universe style. (February 2013)|
Widely shared among the people of Erewhon is the belief that children choose to be born. Many other curious notions abound in Erewhon.
In the chapter, "Musical Banks", Butler compares the practice of the cathedral to that of banks in an attack on the religious hypocrisy of his time.
In the chapter, Butler mentions that these banks have their own currency, which is not honoured by the other banks. This is usually taken to be a comment on the way that Victorian England proclaimed the Christian values of forgiveness, charity and poverty on a Sunday, only to ignore them for the rest of the week and the practical running of its life. A more complex interpretation looks to an old practice of coinage. During the age when the whole point of money was that it was made of precious metal, there was frequent trimming or shaving of coins once they were released to the public, even though people were expected to accept the diminished coins at their face value. These bits were sold under the counter to an assayer. There was also widespread counterfeiting. Banks of that era were few and quite magnificent.
It would not do for churches to be implicated in these activities. Thus, churches actually had money-changing tables at which each coin would be examined separately and a token of actual worth given to the layperson so that he or she could be seen by the other parishioners as putting money in the basket during that part of the service. These tokens had religious images upon them; this also prevented pilferage. The money-changing was not done at the same time as the service itself. (Some distinguished Protestant churches in the US had this practice in the 19th century, besides the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland). The practice goes back to the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, but then it was done for the different reason – that money offered to the temple should not have the images of pagan gods on it.
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 broadcast of 1945 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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