by Samuel Butler




Samuel Butler

Being the assistant editor of a science fiction zine, and being a dabbler in the science fiction arts, I spend a lot of time thinking about technology.  Actually, I spend a lot of time thinking about how many spiders there are in my back yard, the possibility of cephalopods rising up in C'thulu-esqe revolt against humanity, and technology.  Usually in that order.  And I think about technology in some very specific contexts. Of course there is the usual robot overlord, Terminator dystopia that many of us thing about.  But I also think about it in terms of equating it to life.  I've always thought that human beings were simply advanced and organic computers.  Our bodies make millions of calculations every second just to keep us on our feet as we walk around.  Our bodies metabolize air and food and then decide according to some calculation, how it is distributed.  Rudy Rucker in, his essay "Surfing the Gnarl", asserts that the whole universe is essentially concentric circles of computing.  How's that for living in a math based world?  Even going back to the 18th century, the philosopher Leibnize wrote "Monadology", where he explains that monads are just units that comprise other units.  A human is a collection of bones, skin, blood (monads), which are in turn, collections of cells of varying types and themselves monads.  The point being that these units are standard and therefore measureable, and by extension computable.  Yes, it all sounds so tiring, even to me.  But it helps me to arrive at another topic about machines, and computers.  And the good news is, we only have to go back to the 19th century to enjoy this one.

The subject of this week's Free Reading reminds me of the topic.  "Erewhon" by Samuel Butler.  The book is interesting in that it is almost steampunk in its conception of complex ideas about machines in a 19th century backdrop. In that sense it also reminds me of William Gibson's "The Difference Engine".  As a work of fiction it bears little resembelance to any of these works, but the 19th century "steampunk" aspect is kind of implied by the author's understanding of machines at and of the time.  The only thing I didn't particularly care for was the no so subtle tones of satire in the work.  The book was based directly upon the theories of Charles Darwin, and in reading it, I felt the author used a bit of levity to prevent some from believing he was openly mocking Darwin.  But that's is just theory.  What I found so compelling about "Erewhon" is that it is the first time that the idea of artificial intelligence is ever introduced in a work of fiction.  More importantly, the idea of technological singularity is simultaneously introduced, though as a sort of quaint forerunner to the actual idea of technological singularity.

My final thought on this book has to do with Steampunk, a genre I despise.  It tend to be overly stylized, fetishistic, and ungrounded for my tastes.  And it idealizes a period in human history that was decidedly bad for like %90 of the population of the world.  Having said that, reading early works like this and even acquiring some rudimentary knowledge from sources like "Omni", "Wired, " and "Popular Science" could really help writers piece together compelling and convincing science fiction stories rooted in actual science.  One of the things I loved about Gibson and Sterling's "The Difference Engine" was how convincing the actual Difference Engine was.  Evidence of "punch card" computers date back to ancient times, and the Victorian era one was cool, if elusive to the reader.  I hope this book inspires potential Steampunk writers.  And I hope it inspires them to write something substantial and compelling.  To all my other readers I simply hope you enjoy this read.  Download the Kindle file below to begin reading!