Thursday, January 05, 2017


Fascinating dystopia about the future of the world with machines

Samuel Butler - EREWHON, OR OVER THE RANGE -1872

This work has been transcribed and digitized as “The Project Gutenberg eBook, Erewhon, by Samuel Butler” from the 1910 A. C. Fifield (revised) edition by David Price, email,, accessed December 31, 2016.

Let me first give the author’s recommendation about how to pronounce the title of this book.

“The Author wishes it to be understood that Erewhon is pronounced as a word of three syllables, all short—thus, Ĕ-rĕ-whŏn.”

This being said, it is clear that it is the backward writing and reading of “nowhere.” The prefaces to the second and third edition are interesting because they are pointing out an important debate at the end of the 19th century that was to go on developing into what is known as eugenics till it led to the criminal development of the Nazi project of cleaning up the planet of some “races,” an unacceptable word that covered all types of ethnic (Jews and Gypsies), national (Russians, Ukrainians and many other groups), political (communists, trade-unionists, etc.) or social (gays, some religious groups particularly among German Protestants, handicapped people, socially “unfit” people, etc.) groups racially defined at least negatively since they were accused of endangering the purity of the Aryan race. This Aryan race was understood in conformity with the 19th century tradition of the Germano-European theory that even pretended the Indo-Aryan languages were the result of a migration from Europe to India, though no origin was specified for these Germano-European people: it was a time when the unique African origin of Homo Sapiens was not even imagined, let alone the various and successive out-of-(black)-Africa migrations starting around 180,000 years ago or maybe even earlier. This Germano-European theory has today been discarded with the slow emergence of the specific migration out of Africa around 45,000 years ago, their settling somewhere around the Iranian Plateau and then the two migrations from there after the Ice Age, one to Europe and one to India or the Indian sub-continent, Sanskrit being a language of the second migration and the language descending from the common source of the two groups is Farsi in Iran and South Iraq, just like Basque is the language descending from the languages of the first Homo Sapiens in Europe before the Ice Age (Cro-Magnon, Gravettians, etc.) who were speaking a set of Turkic languages or dialects.

The second edition preface alludes to The Coming Race, an 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and to his (Samuel Butler’s) own chapters on machines in connection with Charles Darwin since he, Samuel Butler, is considering the evolutionary theory as applying to machines as well as to vegetal and animal species, making machines a living species of sorts. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published on November 24, 1859 and as such was a well-known book by Charles Darwin when Samuel Butler started the present book. But The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was first published in 1871 and as such is contemporary with The Coming Race and Erewhon. We can and must note here Darwin does not use the word “race” as the basic concept but “species” and for him man is a species like all others. There is no eugenics in Darwin though his theory of evolution and natural selection will be vastly used to justify theories like behaviorism and so called social Darwinism particularly popular at the end of the 19th century with an important American movement after the Civil War (check Russell Herman Conwell, 1843-1925, his preaching in that period that was to produce the essential book Acres of Diamonds in  1915 in which he defends the idea that poverty is a punishment from God and riches and economic success are a reward from God, accessed January 4, 2017), and such theories were to develop into the criminal Nazi pretension to purify humanity by exterminating what they considered as inferior races.

At the end of the 19th century it was common to believe social classes that determined various social life styles would eventually lead to either some genetic evolution towards differentiated human species or to some programmed conditioning producing different types of integrated individuals. The former approach is represented by H.G. Wells and his The Time Machine, 1895, in which he develops the crossing of Darwin’s evolution and Marx’s vision of a class society, thus producing a future with two species, the Morlocks living underground in total darkness and descending from the working class of the Victorian industrial world, and the Eloi living on the surface in full idleness eating fruits that grow around them. These Eloi descend from the old bourgeoisie of the Victorian industrial society. In fact, in this world the basic class organization described by Karl Marx is inverted by biological evolution and the descendants of the working class dominate the world and exploit the descendants of the bourgeoisie as pure cattle that they capture regularly to provide themselves with meat: in a way a direct illustration of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The latter approach of programmed conditioning is best represented by Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World, 1932, in which people are conditioned into five classes, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and in which those who cannot conform are annihilated while those who survive as standard human beings are expelled into some reservations that you can visit as a “tourist.”

H.G. Wells will be active in various movements in the 20th century defending strict eugenics. He advocates the elimination of all “races” of color, except the Jews (who are not of any color really) because they intermarry. In a later film, Things to Come, 1936, he describes an entirely white future that conquers the universe under the total power and control of scientists. Note Brave New World did not specify skin color but it can be assumed this world is entirely white. The common point between H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley is their connection to Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) who was an English biologist, known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his defense of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He was instrumental in developing scientific education in Britain, and he opposed Christian leaders who tried to stifle scientific debate. A noted unbeliever, he defined himself as an "agnostic" as for his attitude towards religion. H.G. Wells attended classes by Thomas Henry Huxley, and Aldous Huxley was his grandson.

In that context of this theory of evolution, the Marxist vision of class society, and eugenics, the last one comprising social segregation, racial rejection and the extermination of those considered as unfit for or unproductive in society, we have to assess the position of Samuel Butler and his Erewhon.

This assessment is important but we have to say straight away that with this work of fiction we shift back to England, and yet in that period England and the USA were widely exchanging literary works and inspiration, as I have indicated with the mention of Social Darwinism and Behaviorism that are essentially American, though eugenics that emerge from this context is vastly represented at the time and in the following fifty years in Europe, starting with Sweden even before the First World War.

The very first element we have to refer to is the very common pattern used in this book, that is to say a world that exists as a survival beyond a natural limit, in this case a range of mountains. This pattern has been before and will be used after Samuel Butler. We have to mention Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719), Gulliver’s Travel by Jonathan Swift (1726), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838) and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864) before the present novel. But the pattern or theme will become a real gold vein over the next few decades. Let’s mention a few works. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne (1873); King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885); The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896); The Village in the Treetops by Jules Verne (1901); The Lost World by Conan Doyle (1912); The Moon Pool by Abraham Merritt (1913). There are a lot more after the First World War but the context is then different though in many ways it is the continuation of what was already done before, with an essential development in films since the cinema becomes a really popular medium then. One of the best films along that line is Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang. The theme is still very active. For one example we could consider The Dark Tower series by Stephen King as being based on a limit beyond which, or under which a lost and forgotten world exists, and this world is both the victim of our surface world and the warning about or prediction of what is going to happen to our surface world.

This being said the author is trying hard to make us believe it is a real trip and the report about this trip written by the person who is the main character in the novel, including a mention of the French-German war and the siege of Paris in 1870-71. Of course the trip from that lost world somewhere in Queensland in Australia to The Adriatic Sea and an Italian ship for their escape in a balloon is totally unrealistic. But we must not forget it is a novel and not a scientific report.

At the same time the tone is that of a journalistic report, objective with long “quotations” (that are of course fictitious) and even here and there direct criticism of some ideas and opinions expressed by the Erewhonians. And yet it is never ironical, sarcastic or caustic in any way that would imply this is a direct criticism of English society, or more generally of industrial society, the society of the first industrial revolution, that of the steam engine and coal. However, we often take some of the views expressed by some Erewhonians as direct criticism of England, but is it serious or is it plain entertainment. More generally, does Samuel Butler criticize the modern industrial society of the time and its foreseeable future, or is he just making fun of it for our plain entertainment. I am inclined to think that anyway it represents a mood or way of thinking common in those days, at the end of the 19th century. It does not matter whether the author shares these opinions or not: they are expressed and as such represent their time. I will even say they represent some values emerging in that last third of the 19th century, especially if we consider Charles Darwin and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s already mentioned novel generally known under the title of VRIL (1872).

The Erewhonian society represents the emergence of a culture of “rights” with the rights of animals, the rights of plants and beyond these the rights of machines too. But the rights of men are just more or less surrounded and besieged by all the other rights. You can only eat animal flesh from animals which have died a natural death, or eggs which are beyond the possibility to be incubated into a chick, hence that are rotten or half rotten, etc. Even grains have rights since they contain life. We are confronted to a fundamentalist absolute theory and practice of total respect of life, be it vegetal, animal or mechanical. And yet this question of machines brings up a completely different opinion.

If machines were granted the rights they deserve to have because of the life they contain, man is understood as having only one future, to become “a domestic man” (in other words to be domesticated) “under the beneficent rule of machines.” This vision is expressed as a fear, a fearful and frightening prediction, and in Erewhon they decided, several thousand years ago to ban machines completely, including watches. It is not specified how they tell times since sundials are also machines. But they seem to mean mechanical machines, machines that have many parts that are articulated onto one another. They insist on the steam engine of course and there is somewhere the mention of an abandoned railway station (like in The Dark Tower by Stephen King). The most interesting element being the life that is stated as part of machines with evolution from one machine to the next and the possibility for one machine to reproduce into another machine of the same type or slightly modified on the very model of sexual reproduction. It is said so seriously that we may doubt whether it is comedy, humor or reality. One century and a half after this book when some intellectuals are defending the concept of the “Singularity” within the context of robotization and systematic automatization we can wonder: around 2050 machines will be more intelligent than men and will replace men in all productive and administrative tasks. Several times the idea that machines are evolving a lot faster than man and animals is there to prove the author is serious somewhere and this argument of the speed of inventions and the exponential acceleration of this speed is the fundamental argument of the proponents of the Singularity. Think of Moore’s Law for example:

Moore’s Law is a computing term which originated around 1970; the simplified version of this law states that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years.  A quick check among technicians in different computer companies shows that the term is not very popular but the rule is still accepted.” (, accessed January 4, 2017)

So at this level this book is a witness to the emergence of the right to live, live and let live, for all living beings, and to the future exponential speed of development of machines and its danger for humanity. This ambiguity is just the same as the one we noted with The Scarlet Letter. The rights of love shared equally by men and women are emerging but the bigotry of some survives this emergence and even today such rights are vastly questioned by some in some countries, including our own, the West as opposed to the Rest. In the case of this book the rights of plants, animals and machines are fine and dandy but what about the rights of men? Erewhon has a lot to say about this, and the first idea is that we are dealing with the rights of men and not of women, and certainly not of children, sorry, I mean boys only, girls are not even mentioned. Women can only be wives and within the strict limits imposed by society. Gender is of course not envisioned. We are dealing here with an extremely male dominated society. The main character falls in love at first sight with the younger daughter in the family where he lives, though he is expected to marry her elder sister who has to be married first, and what’s more this younger daughter falls in love with the main character at first sight and they both elope and escape from this world. But no premarital sex, of course not, and marriage under the authority of a regular priest as soon as civilization is reached. But reproduction in Erewhon is reduced to a chore, a burden for adult humans.

The theory that before being born everyone, in fact millions and millions of unborn individuals totally immaterial but entirely real in abstract definition exist in pure bliss in another universe or layer of this universe and these individuals have to request their freedom to be born, and sign a document that states they will not be able to come back, for them to be granted the right to look for a consenting couple who will accept to bring them to life after a long period during which the unborn candidate to be born is pestering that couple. In other words, boys and girls are not born in cabbages and roses but they are born – literally meaning carried through – from the Unborn world into this human life. Each one of these born Unborns is at once attached to formulae that define their entire responsibility in their decision to be born meaning that parents are nothing but the vessels of this birth and the victims who have to be protected against these born children. You will find a contradiction when the author envisages a special tax to be paid by parents when at the age of twenty their children are not economically independent, that is to say are not making enough money to autonomously provide for the needs of themselves and their families. But the subject of this book, as much as the author of it, is wide enough to contain a contradiction.

That leads us to education. Simple if not minimal education indeed. State-owned schools are only providing the children with the famous three Rs (reading, writing and ‘rithmetics). By age 10 they are liberated from school and have to get into some kind of apprenticeship with someone who is practicing this or that profession in order to learn it. By 20 maximum they have to be established in society as autonomous economically responsible individuals. The status of the Colleges of Unreason is in contradiction again with this principle since they are for young people after ten years of age.  But the principle is that children are supposed to learn unreason as part of reason and thus to learn how to express any idea in a most contradictory and non-committing way. Any asserted idea is suspicious if it is not wrapped up in some contradictory seasoning. At the same time this Erewhon society is shown as being extremely sectarian about many things that cannot in any way be questioned. It sounds like a bigot society imposing the basic bigotry of no assertion for all questions that are not set as immovable, such as the criminality of the possession and use of any machine or mechanical device.

The second unquestionable idea is that what we call diseases are considered as a criminal activity on the side of the sick. The sick are responsible for their sickness and they have to be punished including by dying because of the decision not to provide them with any help or treatment. On the other side all that we would call crimes, like embezzling or stealing, is seen as social derangement in one particular individual who has to be cured of this dysfunctioning by a severe diet and regimen, bread and water, or bread and milk for a certain length of time, plus the use of a straightener to check the diet and perform the regimen of physical punishment like flogging on the deranged person seen as a victim who has to be saved. We can note it is the absolute reverse of our societies in which crimes are seen as the responsibility of the criminals only and these have to be punished including by death since reform is not the basic objective. On the other hand, we believe sickness is not the “fault” and “guilt” of the sick who have to be cured and niot punished for their ailments. At the same time isn’t it the emergence of the idea that reform should be the basic objective of the treatment of crime and criminals. And further on isn’t health the responsibility of individuals who have to have some endurance, and pay for it, to get the treatment they need and some may think they deserve. This insurance principle is obviously a way to imply the sick are responsible for their sickness and must cover the cost of the treatment with some kind of insurance taken from their own pockets. Isn’t Samuel Butler thus advancing on these two questions along lines that are not yet entirely accepted and implemented in some developed countries like the USA, for one example.

That leads me to saying this novel is in many ways a reflection of its time and a reflection on the historical and social movements that are at work in European and industrial societies, maybe in the long run more than the short run. Yet it is very backward on women and children. Suffragettes and education for all at the highest level each one can reach are far from this book published in 1872. At times some most positive reforms and ideas are emerging in a context of absolute conservative and even reactionary opinions.


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