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Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward 2000-1887" remains the most successful and influential utopian novel written by an American writer mainly because the competition consists mostly of dystopian works, from Jack London's "The Iron Heel" to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," or science fiction works like Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Dispossessed." Still, I do not mean to give the impression that Bellamy's 1888 novel gets this honor by default. Magazine covers in 1984 were devoted to judging the track record of George Orwell's dystopian classic and I would argue that Bellamy deserves the same sort of consideration now that we have reached the 21st century. I certainly intend to use him to that end in my upcoming Utopian Images class.
At the end of the 19th century Bellamy creates a picture of a wonderful future society. Bellamy's protagonist is Julian West, a young aristocratic Bostonian who falls into a deep sleep while under a hypnotic trance in 1887 and ends up waking up in the year 2000 (hence the novel's sub-title). Finding himself a century in the future in the home of Doctor Leete, West is introduced to an amazing society, which is consistently contrasted with the time from which he has come. As much as this is a prediction of a future utopia, it is also a scathing attack on the ills of American life heading into the previous turn of the century. Bellamy’s sympathies are clearly with the progressives of that period.
"Looking Backward" does not have a narrative structure per se. Instead West is shown the wonders of Boston in the year 2000, with his hosts explaining the rationale behind the grand civic improvements. For example, he discovers that every body is happy and no one is either rich or poor, all because equality has been achieved. Industry has been nationalized, which has increased efficiency because it has eliminated wasteful competition. This is a world with no need of money, but every citizen has a sort of credit card that allows them to make individual purchases, although everyone has the same montly allowance. In Bellamy's world is so ideal that it does not have any police, a military, any lawyers, or, best of all, any salesmen. Education is so valued that it continues until students reach the age of 21, at which point all citizens enter the work force, where they will stay until the age of 45. Men and women are compensated equally, but there are some distinctions between job on the basis of gender, and pregnancy and motherhood are taken into account.
Bellamy was living during the start of the Industrial Revolution, and like Francis Bacon and Tomasso Campanella who wrote during the height of the Age of Reason, he sees science and human ingenuity as being what will solve all of humanity's problems. He does not get into too many details regarding the comforts of modern living in the future, but there are several telling predictions (e.g., something very much like radio). However, it is clear that Bellamy is writing primarily to talk about economics and sociology, especially because he always compares his idealized future with the problems of his own time.
Obviously Bellamy's critique of the late 19th century will be of less interest to today's students that his various predictions on the both the future and an ideal world, unless they are specifically studying the American industrial revolution. But the latter two are enough to make "Looking Backward" deserve to be included in a current curriculum and I am looking foward to how well my students think Bellamy predicted the world in which we now find ourselves living.
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VINE VOICEon 25 March 2016
A nineteenth-century curio, this book presents a vision of twenty-first century society as an egalitarian state of common endeavour in which all industry is nationalised, all 'salaries' equal, and all competition and want eliminated. Our hero Rip-Van-Winkles his way to the future, engages in endless discussions with his benign host and, after a series of no adventures at all, wins the love of that gentleman's daughter.

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...
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on 14 December 2008
This books is worth reading due to its historic significance. It is however quite badly written, as it is really a grand tour of the future world of the year 2000, and plot and character development are just means to an end,really. In the year 2000, women still leave men at the end of meals to discuss the real business of life over brandy and cigars.

Interestingly, costume in the year 2000 is not discussed, which would have been interesting.

Contemporary Socialists and Marxists held this book up to ridicule, one reason being that Bellamy appeared to think that many problems of life would be resolved by people being able to have live music piped into their homes via telephone, as well as an unlimited number of consumer goods delivered through pipes! The dismissive phrase used by William Morris was that it was a 'Cockney paradise,' meaning a brainless consumer binge, rather like the lyrics of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

One other aspect of it held up to ridicule -by Victorian contemporaries- was the idea that people doing rotten dirty jobs would work shorter hours than people in-say-libraries. One contemporary satire of this book had 5,000 people working as gravediggers at a funeral, so that each person only had to work for five minutes or so.

Interestingly, the author uses the phrase 'credit card' for possibly the first time in human history, as his utopia's subsitute for money.
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on 12 September 2013
I enjoyed this boom. Never heard of Bellamy before this book and, the modern 're-written version based on it. It described a world that is utopian and centralised that you would think would be a communists wet dream. It's certainly in the vein of a nineteenth century author in the naivety of ideas and predictions however, I did enjoy it.

Try it out and look at how an author from this time, envisions the early 21st century.
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on 25 October 2015
An interesting curiosity. Quite well written, though slight on story. The author's main purpose is to describe a social and political system he has constructed. Sadly there is hardly anything by way of description of the protagonist's surroundings in future Boston, or the costumes of the people he encounters. There are some delightful features, like everyone listening to concerts at home 'by telephone' and cash having been replaced by little pieces of card loaded with credit. There is also a kind of Amazon set up for shopping with pneumatic tubes to deliver the goods! His system is essentially authoritarian and I understand William Morris wrote the far more libertarian 'News from Nowhere' in response to Looking Backward. I would say that as a piece of writing LB is better than NFNW. Good to read both and compare the politics.
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on 22 December 2015
Interesting in an historical standpoint of how a self-absorbed, self-righteous man from 1860s England would perceive the world and how to address social issues facing the nation at the time. Most of it was written as a one-sided introspective conversation with himself (as the main character). Even our protagonist was having a conversation with another character, he was basically just agreeing with himself or using the opponent to segue into another point.

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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 8 April 2009
The Dover edition of Bellamy's classic is one of the most affordable ways to access this enduring time travel utopia. In its day this novel, and its sequel Equality, where so popular that they actually gave rise to a political movement of Nationalist or Bellamy Clubs. More recently it has been the inspiration to Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel's Participatory Economics project.

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.
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Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward 2000-1887" remains the most successful and influential utopian novel written by an American writer mainly because the competition consists mostly of dystopian works, from Jack London's "The Iron Heel" to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," or science fiction works like Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Dispossessed." Still, I do not mean to give the impression that Bellamy's 1888 novel gets this honor by default. Magazine covers in 1984 were devoted to judging the track record of George Orwell's dystopian classic and I would argue that Bellamy deserves the same sort of consideration now that we have reached the 21st century. I certainly intend to use him to that end in my upcoming Utopian Images class.
At the end of the 19th century Bellamy creates a picture of a wonderful future society. Bellamy's protagonist is Julian West, a young aristocratic Bostonian who falls into a deep sleep while under a hypnotic trance in 1887 and ends up waking up in the year 2000 (hence the novel's sub-title). Finding himself a century in the future in the home of Doctor Leete, West is introduced to an amazing society, which is consistently contrasted with the time from which he has come. As much as this is a prediction of a future utopia, it is also a scathing attack on the ills of American life heading into the previous turn of the century. Bellamy's sympathies are clearly with the progressives of that period.
"Looking Backward" does not have a narrative structure per se. Instead West is shown the wonders of Boston in the year 2000, with his hosts explaining the rationale behind the grand civic improvements. For example, he discovers that every body is happy and no one is either rich or poor, all because equality has been achieved. Industry has been nationalized, which has increased efficiency because it has eliminated wasteful competition. This is a world with no need of money, but every citizen has a sort of credit card that allows them to make individual purchases, although everyone has the same montly allowance. In Bellamy's world is so ideal that it does not have any police, a military, any lawyers, or, best of all, any salesmen. Education is so valued that it continues until students reach the age of 21, at which point all citizens enter the work force, where they will stay until the age of 45. Men and women are compensated equally, but there are some distinctions between job on the basis of gender, and pregnancy and motherhood are taken into account.
Bellamy was living during the start of the Industrial Revolution, and like Francis Bacon and Tomasso Campanella who wrote during the height of the Age of Reason, he sees science and human ingenuity as being what will solve all of humanity's problems. He does not get into too many details regarding the comforts of modern living in the future, but there are several telling predictions (e.g., something very much like radio). However, it is clear that Bellamy is writing primarily to talk about economics and sociology, especially because he always compares his idealized future with the problems of his own time.
Obviously Bellamy's critique of the late 19th century will be of less interest to today's students that his various predictions on the both the future and an ideal world, unless they are specifically studying the American industrial revolution. But the latter two are enough to make "Looking Backward" deserve to be included in a current curriculum and I am looking foward to how well my students think Bellamy predicted the world in which we now find ourselves living.
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VINE VOICEon 10 October 2010
An interesting 19th century novel depicting a utopian America in the year 2000 where society has abolished all distinctions of rich and poor and there are no politicians, bankers, armed forces, lawyers or any kind of prejudice or injustice. At one level, the depiction is almost laughably unrealistic, but in another shows the type of idealism that held sway in some quarters in the late 19th century (the author says in a postscript that he expects society to have moved in this direction in the lifetime of the children of the 1880s, if not that of the adults). The story is told through the medium of an 1880s gentlemen who is hypnotised to help him sleep, but oversleeps and wakes up 113 years later. There is a twist and a counter-twist at the end that keeps the reader guessing. Interesting at a philosophical level, if not in terms of realism.
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Having never really heard of this novel or its author before, I was rather surprised to discover how immensely popular it was at the end of the nineteenth century. Edward Bellamy does an excellent albeit sometimes pedantic job of communicating his socioeconomic views and provides an interesting and informative read, despite the fact that the utopia of his fictional creation is a socialist nightmare in the realm of my own personal philosophy. It is very important to understand the time in which Bellamy was writing, especially for a conservative-minded thinker such as myself who holds many of Bellamy’s views as anathema. It was the mid-1880s, a time of great social unrest; vast strikes by labor unions, clashes between workers and managers, a debilitating economic depression. Bellamy, to his credit, in no way comes off as holier than thou; his wealthy protagonist recognizes his own responsibility in seeing the world in the eyes of the more prosperous classes, basically ignoring the plights of the poor and downtrodden, having inherited rather than earned the money he is privileged to enjoy, etc. This makes the character’s observations and conclusions very impactful upon the reader.
While I do respect Bellamy’s views and understand the context in which they germinated, I cannot help but describe his future utopia as nothing less than naïve, socialistic, unworkable, and destructive of the individual spirit. Indeed, it sounds to me like vintage Soviet communism, at least in its ideals. Bellamy is a Marxist with blinders on. I should describe the actual novel at this point. The protagonist, an insomniac having employed a mesmerist to help him sleep through the night, finds himself waking up not the following morning in 1887 but in a completely changed world in 2000. His bed chamber was a subterranean fortress of sorts which only he, his servant, and the mesmerist (who left the city that same night) even knew about, and apparently his home proper burned down on that fateful night and thus his servant was clearly unable to bring him out of his trance the following morning. It is only by accident that Dr. Leekes of twentieth-century Boston discovers the unknown tomb and helps resuscitate its remarkable inhabitant. 20th-century life is wholly unlike anything the protagonist has ever known, and the book basically consists of a number of instruction sessions by the Leekes as to how society has been virtually perfected over the preceding 100 years. There is no more war, crime, unhappiness, discrimination, etc. There are no such things as wages or prices, even. All men and women are paid the same by virtue of their being human beings; while money does not exist, everyone has everything they possibly need easily available to them for purchase with special credit cards. Every part of the economy is controlled by the national government, and it is through cooperation of the brotherhood of men that production has exceeded many times over that of privately controlled industries fighting a war against each other in the name of capitalism.
Bellamy’s future utopia is most open to question in terms of the means by which individualism is supposedly strengthened rather than smothered, how a complex but seemingly set of incentives supposedly keep each worker happy and productive, how invention or improvement of anything is possible in such a world, and how this great society does not in fact become a mirror of Khrushchev’s Russian state. Such a society consisting of an “industrial army” and controlled in the minutest of terms by a central national authority simply sounds like Communism to my ears and is equally as unsustainable. Of course, Bellamy wrote this novel many years before the first corruptions of Marx’s dangerous dreams were made a reality on earth. As I said, I disagree with just about everything Bellamy praises, and I think almost anyone would agree his utopia is an impossibility, but I greatly respect the man for his bold, humanitarian vision and applaud his efforts to make the world a better place. In fact, many groups organized themselves along the lines of the world Bellamy envisioned, so the novel’s influence on contemporary popular thought is beyond question. Looking Backward remains a fascinating read in our own time.
I should make clear that the novel is not completely a dry recitation of socioeconomic arguments and moralistic treatises. Bellamy makes the story of this most unusual of time travelers a most enjoyable one, bringing in an unusual type of old-fashioned romance to supply the beating heart of a novel that had the potential to become overly analytical and thus rather boring reading otherwise. He also managed to grab me by the scruff of the neck and shake me around a couple of times with his concluding chapter, quite shocking me with a couple of unexpected plot twists. This great humanist of the late nineteenth century can teach us all something about what it means to be truly human, although I fear that his socioeconomic theories are themselves far too romanticized to have much practical relevance in the lives of modern men and women.
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