on August 2, 2015
(Read in 2014) When we read stories about the predicted future, we need to take into context the time the author is writing. When we are living in that future, it's easy to criticize because we have the benefit of history and present tense. We are also used to our future tales involving Sci-Fi, flying machines, fancy technology.
Looking Backward provides such a conundrum. Author Edward Bellamy deserves credit for developing his version of an Utopian society in such detail, thinking out every facet. He is writing in 1887. The premise is Julian West falls asleep in a bed chamber that is below his house in Boston. He suffers from insomnia, so has a doctor who puts him into hypnotic states to help Julian fall asleep. It is May 30, 1887. He wakes up in the year 2000 in Boston, when the chamber is exscavated. At the time of his sleep, West - and Bellamy - are wealthy, and grappling with how to deal with the issues being raised by the laborers, who are advocating for better wages and working conditions.
Dr. Leete, his wife, and beautiful daughter, Edith (the same name of Julian's fiance in 1887), now occupy the property.
What transpires is a long conversation as Dr. Leete tells Julian the new world that is Boston, the United States, always referred to as the "nation," and world. Everybody is equal. No divisions of wealth. Men are positioned to work in areas that take advantage of their talents. No one works past age 45. Means of distribution are so organized that the exact amount that is needed for each person is known, so in the case of food, there is no hunger. The nation controls production and distribution. There is no cash, but a credit card system, but not like our credit cards. A certain amount is deducted at purchase. There is no want, so no competition and no poverty. Private business, large and small, does not exist. People rarely prepare meals at home, instead eating in the only dining hall in the ward they live. Women have been freed from housework. However, they work in fields that “aren't strenuous for them,” and elect their own leaders. While the primary elected woman can serve in a cabinet of the President of the nation, it wasn't clear whether the woman could be President. There is no mention of African Americans’ participation in the new society.
While occasionally Julian sees the Boston outside the house with the Leetes, most of the dialog is a conversation between Julian and Dr. Leete, which makes the book lack excitement and action. The other challenge for the reader is it is written in 1887 formal language, with some words we're not familiar with, and using too many words to say something. Even though it is the year 2000, Dr. Leete is afflicted with the same problem, though I guess Bellamy couldn't help that.
The hints at future technology is a device that plays music, your favorite tunes, and can wake you up with music, which they call a telephone. Radio? Alarm clock radio? Ipod? There are mechanisms to transmit information about how much of a product is needed. Computers? Internet? However, no technology dealing with the visual.
This is a "perfect" Utopian society. Many aspects might seem great: a world at peace is something we wish for, and for every body to have enough food. The maddening thing about Looking Backward is it's too perfect to believe. As our current lingo would say, "everybody's all in."
To Bellamy's credit, Julian asks all the right questions. To his discredit, are the answers. One of the first questions is there must have been some conflict or war preceding the establishment of this new world. Paraphrasing, "No," Dr. Leete says, "everybody realized it was the right thing to do." For me, this hangs over the book. Every time Julian asks a question that some change must have caused conflict, the answer is always that's not the case; that didn't happen. When Dr. Leete criticizes how things were done in Julian's time, a period he didn't live in, and how it confounds people of today, it comes across as arrogant. Much of the analysis of the 19th century, though, seemed accurate - and for the actual 20th and 21st centuries.
That in itself, makes it hard to believe that one day everybody woke up, liked everybody else, agreed to share food, wealth, the rich gave up their businesses and money. In a post script, Bellamy says the beginning of the transformation was 50 years hence, which would have been 1938. We now know that was right before World II, but Hitler was entrenched in power in Germany.
All political change involves struggle, non-violent or violent. In the 20th century, we saw the rise and fall of Communism and Nazism; two World Wars to end all wars; the Holocaust and more. A hundred years after the Civil War, African-Americans were still marching for civil rights and whites didn’t change their attitude, and say, “sure, that’s great.” Fire hoses were used on African American protesters, and a governor blocked the entrance to a University. Eventually, change happened.
The ending of the book was a bit unexpected, but I don’t want to spoil it. One question Julian struggles with is, “Can I be part of a society I didn’t help to create?”
In the post script, Bellamy tried to address the “rapidity” of the transformation:
“Looking Backward...is intended, in all seriousness, as a forecast, in accordance with the principles of evolution, of the next stage in the industrial and social development of humanity, especially in this country; and no part of it is believed by the author to be better supported by the indications of probability than the implied prediction that the dawn of the new era is already near at hand, and that the full day will swiftly follow.”
In 2014, we need to remember that Bellamy was not going to live to see 2000, and though we criticize aspects of his forecast, we shouldn’t stop our contributions to making a better world.