Book talk: 'Looking Backward' by Edward Bellamy - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book talk: 'Looking Backward' by Edward Bellamy

Alexander Wallace goes way back.
Nowadays, ‘utopian’ is a word that is used to heap scorn on something we think is unrealistic. It is the word that describes those whose heads are either in the clouds or buried in the sand, refusing to deal with the world as it is. We live in a culture that prides itself on its pragmatism and its willingness to face reality.

But that has not always been seen as a virtue. The history of utopian literature goes back centuries. More often than not, the utopian novel is a thinly disguised author tract to pontificate about whatever issue the author wants to discuss. H. G. Wells did this a number of times, most blatantly in Men Like Gods, and Theodor Herzl wrote a novel of this type, The Old New Land, which formed a major source of inspiration for the nascent State of Israel. But we’re not talking either of those today; instead, we’re discussing the 1888 American utopian novel Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy.
The premise of Looking Backward is that a rich man from the Boston of 1887 falls asleep due to a rather strong medication and wakes up in the year 2000, finding himself on the grounds of a house that was built above the ruins of his own. From this premise, Bellamy explores the ideas that he promoted to put an end to the woes of industrial civilization of the nineteenth century.

As a novel, it is perhaps not the best. Like many works of utopian fiction, it is didactic in the extreme, focusing on big ideas at the expense of an actually compelling narrative. Like many writers of his time, he has a tendency to have his sentences and his paragraphs ramble on and on and on (in my limited experience, Franz Kafka also has this problem in spades). His characters exist to explain or to be explained to. It certainly isn’t high literature, and if it were released today it certainly wouldn’t win any Hugos.

But in another sense, Looking Backward is extremely compelling, if only in a bleak way. Bellamy was a man who was committed to bettering his country and its standards of living. This was a time when children worked in factories, the workday lasted more than twelve hours, and what had been green and pleasant land had been choked with dark satanic mills on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a time when the skies of great cities were blackened with smog, and the local moths adapted to it. It was the time that gave us Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.

And yet, despite all the victories that workers have won since then, so much of Looking Backward rings true today. We are still overworked and at the mercy of callous bosses. We are still treated like machines and not like human beings. We are stilled worked like rented mules.

Looking Backward gives us some needed perspective: that human beings, no matter the year they live, are dreamers. We as a species want something better than the miserable deal that the world has given us; we write our fictions and theorize our better futures out of a desire to see a world where people are decent to one another. It’s what makes Bellamy’s book so sad, in a way, given how the actual year 2000 actually turned out, and twenty-one years later we are nowhere near closer. The dreams of the past will affect us still, but unfortunately so many of them are still dreams.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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