Occasionally a book you're reading can make you want to read another book, and it was the marvellous The End of Mr Y, which references Erewhon often, that sent me straight off to Project Gutenberg to download Samuel Butler's 1872 classic. I also thought it might make a good entry for the Back to the Classics challenge (and also the Sci-fi challenge), and would be perfect for the category entitled "a classic set in a country I am unlikely ever to visit"!
The story is narrated by Higgs, looking back on the great adventure of his life in a strange land. As a young man, Higgs travelled to one of the British colonies, which he doesn't expressly name, but which sounds a lot like New Zealand (where Samuel Butler spent time as a youth). Here, Higgs found work on one of the large sheep stations in the interior of the country, at the limits of the region hitherto explored by the British and up against a seemingly impassable mountain range. Higgs feels sure that there are great tracts of fertile pasture just beyond the mountains and imagines the wealth that could be his if he is the first to discover them, so he sets off - ignoring the protests of his unwilling native guide who warns him of terrible dangers ahead.
After many hardships and struggles, Higgs finds a narrow pass through the mountains, though his guide soon runs off and leaves him to it. On the other side he finds a wondrous civilisation of beautiful people, lovely architecture and harmonious living. Could this be a Utopia? Well, though at first glance everything seems perfect in Erewhon - as the country is named - once Higgs starts to settle in, learn the language and get to grips with the Erewhonian customs, he discovers some surprising and disturbing differences between their culture and his own.
I really wanted to love this book, and at first I did. Higgs's journey across the mountains is entertaining and the discovery of a lost civilisation makes for some great reading. But once Higgs got to Erewhon the story stalled completely and the largest middle section of the book is entirely given over to a detailed description of their way of life.
Butler basically uses the premise of an imagined society to satirise Victorian attitudes to religion, money, and society in general. However, you need a pretty good knowledge of the period to understand many of the points Butler is making and it wasn't until I consulted Wikipedia after finishing Erewhon that much of it became clear. Butler does sometimes labour his points, and his motto seems to be "why say something in one sentence when you can drag it out for a whole chapter?" I have to confess to skimming some bits where I realised Butler was just reiterating things he'd already said. The book picks up again towards the end once Higgs's analysis has finally finished and he continues with the story, but by that time I'm afraid I had lost interest.
On the plus side, he did have an amazing imagination for the time and there's a section about the possible evolution of machines which is very relevant in the computer-dominated world of today. This is the section which Scarlett Thomas alluded to in The End of Mr Y, and it's mainly this that inclines people to categorise Erewhon as a very early example of science fiction.
I'm glad I read this very proto-sci-fi tale, if only as a curiosity-sating exercise, but I don't think I'll be rushing to read the sequel, Return to Erewhon. Two stars.