book review – Erewhon, by Samuel Butler

I’ve just finished reading Erewhon, a particularly fascinating and nourishing read. The opening phase of the book is a little arduous, being focused as it is on establishing the scene. But once underway the story evolves into a very deep and formal philosophical discussion on matters of consciousness, the human condition, social norms, animal welfare, evolution, instinct vs reason, and the blurry distinction between organic and inorganic life – namely animals/plants vs machines – surprisingly prescient (being published in 1872) and pertinent to contemporary discussion around the rise of machine learning, AI, ideas of the hive mind and the like. The writing style is especially charming and precise.

I was pleasantly surprised, having expected a stronger focus on the political, to find such focus on the sociological, ethical and existential. Though my relative historical illiteracy means I can’t really comment on the subtleties of his commentary on Victorian England. In any case, I found the content perfectly ripe with ideas applicable to our modern context.

Given its depth and detail it’s one I look forward to re-reading, particularly because, nearing the end, when the philosophical discussion gives way to the final details of his adventure, it began to dawn on me that the protagonist’s physical journey into this peculiar society, and his eventual escape with one of its inhabitants with whom he had fallen in love, might be intended as a metaphor for a human’s inevitable inner journeys into states of intellectual and emotional maelstroms, delusions, self-destruction, and nature’s seeming proclivity to eventually steer one back to (at least seemingly) firmer ground and new-found clarity.