This is an odd, engaging book, which uses its hero's travels through the land of Erewhon as the launching-place for a series of satirical volleys against the mid-to-late Victorian society in which the author dwelt.
The story's narrator, Higgs, is an adventurer with an entrepreneurial bent, seeking - just as the author himself had sought - to better his fortunes in a far-flung part of the British Empire. His quest leads him to seek to penetrate the high mountain range that looms over the sheepfold where he works, in search of land to farm or gold to mine. So it is that he sets off one day, accompanied by his untrustworthy `native guide'.
So far, so conventional, but this is merely the preface to the meat of Butler's book, Higgs's discovery of the land of Erewhon and the extraordinary people that inhabit it, people whose ideas, on closer examination turn out to be satirical reflections of the ideas Butler could see about him in Britain. Thus for Erewhonians, to be ill is a sin deserving of the severest punishment, while criminal and similar wrongs are seen as we see medical matters, ailments that can be ameliorated with the application of the appropriate treatment ... the treatment for Erewhonians being visits to the local `straightener'. In condemning the Erewhonian's unthinking and unreasonable attitude to physical infirmity, Butler equally condemns Victorian attitudes to moral weakness
An equally neat inversion is to be found in Erewhon's `musical banks', beautiful buildings where Erewhonians pick up a few pieces of the, ostensibly revered, musical currency in order to be able to show them off, paying the institution of the banks lip-service (or, rather, wallet-service) much as some Victorians paid lip-service to the institution of the Church.
Later chapters of the book go on to attack the Universities of Unreason, the Erewhonians' notion of the world of the Unborn and notions of animal and even vegetable rights. One extended passage, ostensibly taken from The Erewhonian `Book of the Machines' is a witty and cunningly-argued warning against the inevitable `Rise of the Machines', using Darwinian logic and instances of what might now be seen as Dawkinsian `extended phenotypic effects'.
The product of such elements is a provocative and entertaining work. But it is far from perfect. Butler is too wrapped-up in the ideas he wishes to expound - some of which had already formed the basis for his earlier pamphlets and publications - to be over-concerned with character. The notional hero of the satire, Hicks, lacks the psychological depth of Swift's Gulliver: the chief motivations for his actions are the desire for cash and the desire for self-preservation, with a few hasty nods toward romantic interest. One certainly cannot imagine him experiencing any of the moments of self-revelation undergone by Gulliver. Other characters fare even worse, being drawn so sketchily that it is hard to remember anything about them beyond their names.
Again, Butler is so keen to satirise, that he often turns on his own ideas, layering one level of satire on another, so one is sometimes unsure whether he is writing of certain Erewhonian attitudes with approbation or contempt.
While it is clearly linked with Swift's `Gulliver's Travels', the work is perhaps more closely allied to Thomas More's Utopia. Not only are the stories' titles both references to `Nowhere', both tales are also involved more closely with the idea of ideas rather than with character. More's lack of characterisation can be excused on the grounds that his work predated the arrival of the modern novel, Butler has no such mitigation to advance. Nonetheless, the book is filled with original and entertaining notions, something enormously refreshing in an age which can feel stuffed with ideas that are merely received or recycled.