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Looking Backward (Dover Thrift Editions) Paperback – 2 Jan 2000
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From the Back Cover
First published in 1888, Looking Backward was one of the most popular novels of its day. Translated into more than 20 languages, its utopian fantasy influenced such thinkers as John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen. Writing from a 19th-century perspective and poignantly critical of his own time, Bellamy advanced a remarkable vision of the future, including such daring predictions as the existence of radio, television, motion pictures, and credit cards.
On the surface, the novel is the story of time-traveler Julian West, a young Bostonian who is put into a hypnotic sleep in the late 19th century, and awakens in the year 2000 in a socialist utopia. Crime, war, personal animosity, and want are nonexistent. Equality of the sexes is a fact of life. In short, a messianic state of brotherly love is in effect.
Entertaining, stimulating, and thought-provoking, Looking Backward is a provocative study of human society as it is and as it might be.
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Passing over the risible premise and slender story, what of the main course, the envisaged society? Much of what Bellamy presents is interesting and thought-provoking. For instance, the state tweaks the weekly hours of labour required in each industry so as to attract sufficient numbers of workers: sewer-cleaners might work just an hour a week. (That this future world still necessitated some drudgery and monotony apparently prompted William Morris to respond with his own utopia, "News from Nowhere".) Meals are served in private rooms of communal dining-houses, goods are ordered from Argos-like warehouses. Industries are led by time-served workers or retirees elected by their peers, and the nation's leader is chosen by similar means, supposedly ensuring that he (yes, 'he', though he has one woman in his cabinet) is wise, diligent and benign. Everyone retires from mandatory labour at 45, retaining their income and working on whatever they fancy.
There are features of this society to raise the modern eyebrow:
* Female citizens of this meh-topia are equal in Bellamy's eyes, less so in mine: they're given jobs in "lighter occupations", and the esteem of these fair flowers is the reward for which young men work so hard: men who are lazy failures end up celibate. (Mind you, the "most careful provision for... [women's] rest when needed" may be a coded but enlightened reference to PMT!)
* High positions in the female workforce are reserved for "wives and mothers, as they alone fully represent their sex." Sorry, Germaine.
* Marriage matches unhindered by class considerations mean that "sexual selection" can "let the inferior types drop out", which, piling up the implausibilities, has resulted in widespread "physical superiority" in just two or three generations.
* "The only coin current is the image of God" (the christian one, obvs) and the text appears unaware of sex or relationships outside marriage, let alone homosexuality.
* He who chooses not to work "is sentenced to solitary imprisonment on bread and water", while if a man accused pleads innocence and is found guilty "his penalty is doubled".
* Though the author's pondering on social organisation is (nonetheless) fruitful, his technological imagination is limited: he just about envisions live music streaming (classical of course), but expects orders for goods to be received and despatched via tubes...
Perhaps the biggest problem with Bellamy's dream is that he provides no real route for getting there: social difficulties simply reach a critical mass and a glorious future unfolds.
What lifts the book a little above merely interesting are the eloquent and impassioned passages towards the end, in which first a sermonising pastor and then the narrator himself excoriate the injustice, poverty and waste of the capitalist nineteenth century. These powerful sections fairly locate the book in a progression with the respective roars of Dickens, Mayhew and, say, Upton Sinclair. How disappointed Mr Bellamy might be, then, if he too, like his protagonist, woke up in the twenty-first century, but only to find most of his outrage still applicable...
The story is one of an insomnaic plantation owner who employs mesmerism and an underground chamber to place himself in a state of suspended animation, unfortunately, like Ash Williams at the end of The Army of Darkness, he sleeps too long and awakens in the distant future.
The story then follows the central character being taken in by a future family, the shock and awe of his totally changed environment where no convention appears untouched, his personal crisis at not just the unfamiliar and undreamed of seachange in values and the economy but also the knowledge that everyone he once knew is now dead. With the passage of time our hero finds love with one of the future family's women and adapts to his new life.
While it is obvious that Bellamy has written a "novel of ideas", and consequently the writting can be a little wooden, but it is none the less a readable book in the same fashion of Well's time traveller fiction such as The Time Machine or When The Sleeper Awakes.
So far as the important of the political ideas goes, I think its very much mistaken to consider it a book infused with marxism, socialism or a radical agenda, instead it's simply futurology with some predictions about social trends which where not that far off the mark, at least with covered malls, credit cards, labour exchanges and radio broadcasting into peoples homes.
Bellamy does depict a society where in mego corporations have merged and merged to the point of a single entity, this trend is accompanied by consensus about full employment but all in all its much more like the Japanese corporation of the seventies or early eighties than the USSR. The second novel, which hasnt been republished in any recent or thrift edition, Equality, is much more so a disection of the politics and business practices of Bellamys future order of superior technics and central planning.
In fact, William Morris is said to have been so perturbed at what he considered a technocratic nightmare that he wrote News from Nowhere, a depiction of a slow, restful, countryside idyle as socialist utopia.
You may have guessed that I found this book to be very one-sided and flat. The reason I purchased this and actually read it was for historical interest, so, for this purpose, I did find it very interesting. I would recommend it for a social commentary by someone who actually experienced 1860s London society.
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