Monday, March 12, 2012

Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887 by Edward Bellamy

Future Imperfect
First published in 1888, Looking Backward was one of the most popular books of its day. It inspired several utopian communities and hundreds of “Bellamy Clubs” across America. Reading it today, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.

Through a convoluted series of circumstances, wealthy Bostonian Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000. Upon awakening he is greeted by Dr. Leete, who will serve as his host and guide in this future society. The social order has changed drastically since West’s day. America is now governed by an idealistic form of socialism, though Bellamy avoids the S-word in favor of terms like “cooperative”, “rational”, or “brotherly”. It’s not a strict Marxist socialism, but rather Bellamy’s own brand. The overall governing principle is that cooperation is more efficient than competition. The trusts that dominated America in the late 19th century have eliminated each other through competition and consolidated into one giant trust, now governing all industry. This trust has somehow become the U.S. government, and now beneficently works for the interests of all citizens. The military has been replaced by the Industrial Army, all industry has been nationalized, money has been abolished, and all citizens receive identical wages in the form of credit which they are free to spend however they choose. Bellamy’s society of the future sounds a lot like an early prospectus for the Soviet Union read through rose-colored glasses. In reality, its existence would require the total negation of all human greed and sloth. It is also heavily reliant on a benevolent ruler who wields absolute power. Unfortunately, as history has shown us time and again, those who wield absolute power are seldom benevolent.

My main objection to this book, however, is not directed toward its political ideals. I generally enjoy reading the socialist literature of this time period, and I’m usually up for a good utopian novel of any political stripe, no matter how far-fetched. What I object to is the writing. Once West wakes up in this brave new world, how does he spend his time? Sitting on the couch talking to Dr. Leete, chapter after chapter after chapter. Occasionally they go out to a restaurant, store, library, etc. where all they do is talk, talk, and talk some more. What’s the first rule of good writing? Show me; don't tell me. If your intention is to teach us about an ideal industrial society, why not give the man a job? Julian West is not an active participant in the society being described. He doesn’t interact with it at all. He is a perpetual bystander. This is really not a novel at all, but a series of dialogues in which Dr. Leete is the mouthpiece spouting the imaginary Constitution of Bellamy’s ideal America. Would we all be happier living in Bellamy’s world? Probably. But that doesn't make it a good book.

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