THE THREAT FROM THE MACHINES
Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
Samuel Butler was Bulwer-Lytton’s near contemporary.
He is remembered these days for two books—“The Way of All Flesh”, which was a semi-autobiographical examination of Victorian morality, and “Erewhon” (1872).
“Erewhon”—which name is an anagram of “Nowhere”—is a book in the long tradition of examining actual society through the description of an imaginary society.
Earlier examples include “The Republic” of Plato, “Utopia” by Thomas More and “The New Atlantis” by Francis Bacon.
“Erewhon” has elements of both utopia and dystopia. For instance, criminals are treated as if they were sick and helped to recover, but those who are actually sick are treated as criminals.
The book’s protagonist is Higgs who discovers Erewhon, hidden among the mountains.
He is treated with kindness by the Erewhonians who show him the various aspects of their society. A high ranking Erewhonian wants Higgs to marry his elder daughter, Zulora, but Higgs prefers the younger one, Arowhena, and they elope, escaping from Erewhon by balloon.
The most interesting discovery, however, that Higgs makes is that the Erewhonians have no advanced machinery of any kind.
This is explained in the central section—"The Book of the Machines”.
Butler was very interested in Darwinism and was the first writer to consider the possibility that human beings might someday be replaced by their own creations. In this, he broke the same ground as Mary Shelley, but with the replacing entity being mechanical rather than biological. Some saw this section as a satirical attack on the theory of evolution, but Butler himself was very clear that it was not: ‘I regret that reviewers have been inclined to treat the chapters on the machines as an attempt to reduce Mr Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention…’
Butler was the first to see that machines could escape from human control:
‘Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in the end become? Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress?’
Butler can thus be seen to be the progenitor off the hordes of tales in which robots or computers overthrow humanity, not least Skynet in the “Terminator” franchise.
But more than that: his warnings are still being discussed with concept of the “Singularity Event” when computers achieve both superintelligence and consciousness and inherit the world.