Monday, March 02, 2009

Review - Erewhon

Erewhon (Penguin Classics)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

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