Erewhon isn’t quite ‘nowhere’ backwards, but it is close enough, and many of the situations that Samuel Butler’s narrator Higgs finds himself in certainly seem backwards to him. Yet the mirror that Butler holds up to our ‘somewhere’ is thought provoking and still relevant nearly a century and a half later.
One of the most striking examples of this is the description of the justice system in Erewhon, a far-off land discovered by Higgs at the start of the novel. The striking thing about Erewhon is how beautiful everyone is, but this beauty comes at a price. In Erewhon, it is not people who have done or thought bad things who are punished, but ill people.
Until only a few years earlier, consumption had been punishable by the death penalty. Sick people are sentenced to imprisonment and hard labour; feeling unwell is never mentioned in public; being pregnant is extremely distasteful. And yet, extortion, moral weaknesses and other ‘crimes’ are a cause of sympathy.
A court case is described at some length, and Higgs is stunned that even the defendant accepts his guilty verdict. It is obvious, surely, that being ill is not the person’s fault? That it goes back to their upbringing, family circumstances, a bit of bad luck? Not like our crimes…
But that’s where Erewhon makes us stop and think. For the people of Erewhon, the belief that being ill was unforgivable but committing extortion was just a momentary blip was deeply engrained and unshakable. For us, the opposite is true. It is rare that we (as a society) question our beliefs about what is bad, what counts as a crime, and why people who commit such crimes do so.
When the sick are sentenced to hard labour in Erewhon, it isn’t surprising that they don’t get better. Is it surprising that those who go to prisons in our world are any different?
On a lighter note, there is a wonderful description of a potato from The Book of the Machines, a revolutionary text that Higgs finds in Erewhon. The author argues that plants, animals and machines are all connected – hence machines will one day take over the world:
Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead. He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. He sees the light coming from the cellar window and sends his shoots crawling straight thereto.