Looking Backward by Bellamy, Edward, 1887

Looking Backward by Bellamy, Edward - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I am a big fan of utopia stories in SF, but I must say, other than Edward Bellamy's 1887 tome Looking Backward: 2000-1887, I am not aware of any others that actually germinated into a political movement. People have been looking for a better way of life for thousands of years. Bellamy takes an entertaining pass as describing the psychological and sociological changes that would have to take place before we reach that fabled Promised Land. And though the story is both entertaining and thought provoking, Bellamy fails to make a strong statement in the end by falling victim to the same thing that gets most other Utopians. In describing the changes that must be made, he failed to deal at all with the problems that would rise anew, and are endemic to any sort of tumult, good or bad. I suppose that he also neglected to discuss how to change people's hearts and minds, but I don't think that he can be faulted for that. Four stars out of five.

Looking Backwards is the story of a man named Julian West who is given a preparation by a physician to cure his insomnia, then sleeps for 113 years. He wakes in the year 2000 after being found by a retired physician who was building a laboratory on West's property. West had taken to sleeping in a sub-basement of his house for the silence and the darkness, so he was out of the elements. He went to sleep in his home in Boston in 1887 complaining about labor shortages and strikes, and woke up over a century later to an almost pure anarchical socialist utopia. Bellamy's biggest hobgoblins were the lack of compassion between people of different social classes, the system of economics that allowed the rich to live off of the labor of the proletariat, and the rugged and destructive individualism that drove men to compete with each other for advantage. His changes to the economy of the world were radical to the highest order, but refreshingly nonviolent. Bellamy envisioned a world where mega corporations continued to swallow up small businesses and gather more and more assets. But instead of leaving a world where a dozens of mega corporations battled each other in economic competition, those mega corporations turned out to be just another step in the natural evolution of the economy to consolidation into one entity, which allowed itself to be taken over by the State. Thus in Bellamy's world of the year 2000 there is no competition. The State turns out goods only in the amount needed by the population as determined by census, and delivers them to the citizenry in mega-structures that are eerily reminiscent of crosses between warehouse box stores and brightly lit shopping centers. His wholesale economy was supported by a whole host of other changes, including radical changes to the education system, fiscal policy, currency, distribution channels and resource exploitation. The most drastic change was to the structure of the workforce. People were guaranteed full education for whatever career they chose. School system administrator's only job was to make sure that people got into the career path that most fit their skills and personality, and to give a broad and deep education so that the career choices people made were wise and informed. Starting at age 21 people went into a military style work force where they worked until they were 45, whereupon they could retire with enough vitality to begin working on their real calling. Although the changes really were made to support the new economic order, the secondary effect was to radically lower the amount of time workers would need to put into their jobs, release women from the drudgery of housework, and increase worker satisfaction and happiness. And since nobody was engaged in competition, only in guaranteeing that demand was met, there were more than enough assets to complete infrastructure projects and beautify the cities as well.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Looking Backward is a real talker. At least 90% of the book is set in Dr. Leete's drawing room or at his breakfast table where he and West compare the way that men of their various eras did things. There is no action at all, though there is a very Victorian love story between West and Leete's daughter. The real issue that I had with this book is pretty much the same issue that I have with just about every other Utopian tale: The author(s) become so wrapped up in the utility of their own ideas that they fail completely to deal with the problems that arise from implementation, which surely must exist. So many of these stories wind up sounding like poorly drafted propaganda exactly for that reason.

And at least once I would really appreciate it if a utopian author would deal with some of the major questions that surround his or her changes. For example, how did this society deal with worker apathy? What safeguards are in place to watch distribution and to prevent shortage? How does the culture deal with catastrophe? How does psychology fit in? How do they keep energy prices in check? I would love to see the answers to some of those questions, but I can't say as I ever have. However, Bellamy does have an interesting idea about penal reform. Since this society has no money, no personal property, and in fact no real way to better your position from the government dole you are given, criminal activity is viewed as a form of atavism. Bellamy posits that almost all crimes of his time were financially motivated, and I suppose under a twisted interpretation he can be said to be right, so in a society based on collaboration instead of competition all crime must be some kind of throw-back to a less enlightened time. "Criminals" are treated medically and released, and according to Dr. Leete, went on to never offend again.

I think if you are going to use utopia stories the way that they were intended to be used, you have to take them all with a pound or two of salt, and rather than trying to seek some holistic truth, look for elements that you find wise. Bellamy's book does have its shortfalls, but in several instances I think that he hit the mark right, and stated things the way that they can and should be. Take for instance the plight of the disabled. Sayeth the good Doctor:

"I think there is no feature of the civilization of your epoch so repugnant to modern ideas as the neglect with which you treated your dependent classes. Even if you had no pity, no feeling of brotherhood, how was it that you did not see that you were robbing the incapable class of their plain right in leaving them unprovided for?"

"I don't quite follow you there," I said. "I admit the claim of this class to our pity, but how could they who produced nothing claim a share of the product as a right?"

"How happened it," was Dr. Leete's reply “that your workers were able to produce more than so many savages would have done? Was it not wholly on account of the heritage of the past knowledge and achievements of the race, the machinery of society, thousands of years in contriving, found by you ready-made in your hand? How did you come to be possessors of this knowledge and this machinery, which represent nine parts to one contributed by yourself in the value of your product? You inherited it, did you not? And were not these others, these unfortunate and crippled brothers whom you cast out, joint inheritors, co-heirs with you? What did you do with their share? Did you not rob them when you put them off with crusts, who were entitled to sit with the heirs, and if you not add insult to robbery when you called the crusts charity?"

I don't think that I will ever quite look at the issue the same again. I had never considered this notion before, but now, I'll be damned if I can get it out of my head. Bellamy did it to me again when Leete and West were discussing the purpose of government. Leete was trying to convince West that the only thing that the government is needed for is distribution of goods and record keeping for production. West cannot believe the police and armies have been disbanded permanently.

"The idea of such and extension of the functions of government is, to say the least, rather overwhelming."

"Extension!" he repeated, "where is the extension?"

"In my day," I replied, it was considered that the proper functions of government, strictly speaking, were limited to keeping the peace and defending the people against the public enemy, that is, to the military and police powers."

"And in heaven's name, who are the public enemies?" exclaimed Dr. Leete. "Are they France, England and Germany, or hunger, cold and nakedness?"

The Bellamy Societies that sprung up as agents of change after this book came out may have been short lived, but it is easy to see why they came in the first place. Bellamy's utopia is really not so different in purpose than all the others out there, but it is a bit more practical, and it is absolutely tailored to address real social problems of the day in which it was published. If you read and liked Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia then you will certainly like this one. They are very similar in approach, though the voices of the men of different eras that tell the stories are noticeably dissimilar. Anthem, by Ayn Rand is a reversal of this story, or perhaps an evolution of it to a horrible place.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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