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Butler, Samuel

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1835-1902) UK artist, author, traveller and speculative thinker, whose family-induced sojourn in New Zealand 1859-1864 gave him raw material for Erewhon (see below) but did not cure him of his artistic inclinations; his best-known single work, the posthumously published autobiographical novel The Way of all Flesh (1903), describes the long conflict between Butler and his minister father, a conflict which also provided much of the force of the Satire on Religion in his two Utopias, Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872; rev 1872; rev 1901) and Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later: Both by the Original Discoverer of the Country and by his Son (1901), in which the Musical Banks closely resemble the nineteenth-century Established Church. Erewhon and its sequel are set in a New Zealand utopia where Machines have been banned for many years, because – in a harsh Parody and attempted reductio ad absurdum of Darwin's theory of Evolution, which Butler opposed, advocating instead a return to the concepts of Erasmus Darwin and an enlightened understanding of Lamarckism – Erewhonians had presciently feared that machines, in their rapid evolutionary progress, would soon supplant Man. The visitor to this utopia – which mixes Dystopian elements freely with its more attractive aspects – is named Higgs, and his eventual escape from Erewhon in a Balloon triggers a new religion in that country, Sunchildism. The sequel is devoted mainly to this faith and Higgs's effect upon it on his return, in an analogical satire on Christianity's origins and growth and the legend of the Second Coming (see Religion). Butler was an atheist, and a compulsive speculator in and chivvier at ideas of all sorts, and his two utopias are densely packed with parodic commentary on all aspects of nineteenth-century civilization.

The peculiar calibre of Butler's mind may be indicated by his suggested modification to Darwin's theory of evolution – that more than chance was required to explain the variations that make for survival, that something like "unconscious memory" shaped a teleological but indwelling impulse towards change. This formulation, which dodges any external religious causation, may have prefigured some of Darwin's own later thought, though crudely. Rather similarly, Butler's deliberately iconoclastic suggestions that Homer was multiple, and that the boss writer (or show runner) of the Homer Stable was a woman, and that William Shakespeare was gay, were more influential in the twentieth century than in his own time. [JC/DIM]

see also: Anonymous SF Authors; Automation; History of SF; Humour; Music; New Zealand; Proto SF; Singularity; Technology.

Samuel Butler

born Bingham, Nottinghamshire: 4 December 1835

died London: 18 June 1902

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