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Looking Backward, 2000-1887 by Edward…

Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888)

by Edward Bellamy

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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You are riding on a coach, you don't know what your destination is but the days are long and overcast, the road rough and pitted. None of this is helped by the unwieldiness of the coach itself, an open topped monstrosity of iron and timber with uncounted passengers jostling for the limited seats, the passengers only outnumbered by the masses pulling the coach forward.

Every so often the coach will hit a particularly big rut and throw a passenger or two to the ground. Those fallen are forced to take up a rope and haul. Sometimes, not so often, a man will find the opportunity to scrabble up the side of the carriage and find a seat. No one's seat is guaranteed and all are in perpetual danger of joining the team up front, but no one will think of a way to better the situation for fear he'll only lose his place.

Such is Bellamy's metaphor of post-industrial society that opens 'Looking Backward', and it is a powerful one at that. There is little doubt that this novel was meant as a vehicle to carry the author's socialist ideology to wider audience, but there is a solid story beneath the rhetoric. Julian West is a man thrown out of his depth into a future he can barely understand and it's hard not to feel sympathy for him. The other characters of note are the pedantic bore Dr. Leete, who insists on explaining the minutiae of how society operates in the year 2000, and his lovely daughter Edith, who provides West with a real connection to his new present.

There are a few other minor characters, including Mrs. Leete who makes several polite remarks and suggests a novel to our hero, but for the most part it is an insular world that Bellamy presents us with. Everything has been nationalized, conscription involves employment over deployment and everyone, man, woman or child, receive the same amount of income from the government in exchange for their service to the industry of their own choice.

Everything has been nationalized, all "shops" have the same inventory, meaning no trip need be longer than 5 minutes from home. Entertainment comes not from the theater, which seems to have ceased to exist, or concert halls, because for a small share of their allotment every family can have music via telephone lines in their homes. Church services are mostly listened to in this manner as well. Most telling of all, food is centrally produced/cooked rather than in the home, to save labor and cost, so almost everyone always dines out. Dining out, of course, involves going to a private dining room in the civic center.

There is much to admire in Bellamy's vision of Utopia, but what I found most prescient was not the prediction of "credit cards" but the self-imposed isolation of the greater part of society in the name of convenience. No shopping trips, no theater or concerts, no congregation.

Much of that sense of isolation has to do with the protection the Leetes offered West until he adapts to modern life, but it is still odd how West did not once seek out or talk to anyone else in the future and there's the apparent lack of curiosity on the part of the public.

Being part political tract 'Looking Backwards' suffers a little from the exposition of Dr. Leete, but it is the personal revelations of West towards his own society, and Edith's complicated relationship with him, that are at the core of the story and made this a runaway bestseller in its day.

Bellamy wrote during the height of America's "gilded age" when industry and political corruptness were reaching their peak, and more wealth then before imagined was in fewer and fewer hands. Sounds familiar doesn't it? There are enough parallels that can be drawn between our age and the late Victorians that makes Bellamy's explication of its problems and ideas of solution relevant and thought-provoking to us moderns. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
A wonderful vision but it assumes too much about basic human nature, selfishness. Will we ever embrace the common wlfare? ( )
  DonaldPowell | Feb 5, 2019 |
In Looking Backward: 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy tells the story of Julian West, who goes to sleep in a hermetic chamber and finds himself waking “exactly one hundred and thirteen years, three months, and eleven days” after he retired for the night, now in the year 2000 (pg. 31). In the future, Dr. Leete explains to him how the United States and the world became a socialist utopia, with people working jobs that bring them satisfaction and knowing that they are bettering society. Further, without money, people receive what goods they want free of charge. These same goods are instantaneously delivered without the chaos and pressures of commercialism.

Bellamy discusses the transformation of the future in generalized terms, focused as he is on the larger ideas of human improvement and the betterment of society, but this works to his advantage as advances in technology would normally lead to the novel feeling too dated. Some of his few examples include a predecessor to debit cards and the use of electronic music. Interestingly, though he does not give much detail about fashion, West’s reaction to modern clothing reflects the general stability in men’s wear since the mid-1800s: “It did not appear that any very startling revolution in men’s attire had been among the great changes my host had spoken of, for, barring a few details, my new habiliments did not puzzle me at all” (pg. 40).

The popularity of Looking Backward – second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur in its own time – led to the creation of Bellamy Clubs which arose to discuss and promote Bellamy’s socialist utopian ideas and fostered several utopian communities. In many ways, the ideas Bellamy describes closely align with those Gene Roddenberry discussed in his Star Trek franchise. As a work of science fiction focused on time travel, Bellamy’s book predates H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine by seven years, though it lacks a time machine and instead relies on the protagonist sleeping through the passage of time, like Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fût jamais from 1770, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle from 1819, and Wells’s other time travel story, When the Sleeper Awakes from 1899. Though Irving and Wells remain familiar to modern audiences, Bellamy’s work speaks to ideas that seem all the more relevant in the early twenty-first century amid the actions of oligarchs and the effects of late-stage capitalism. ( )
1 vote DarthDeverell | Nov 4, 2018 |
The crazy thing about this book is when it was written. The main character travels far into time and 'looks backward' into the past. The future has changed dramatically, but so much of what the author writes is applicable to 2018, which is a bit creepy to think about but also interesting. In the age of populism and Trump, this is recommended reading! ( )
  justagirlwithabook | Aug 1, 2018 |
No contemporary reader can enjoy Looking Backward, I suspect. I don't think it was the first utopian sleeper narrative (that curious subgenre where someone wakes up in the future and it is awesome), but it was certainly the most influential; Bellamy's book definitely inspired News from Nowhere (1891), James Ingleton (1893), Looking Within (1893), The Time Machine (1895), and The Sleeper Awakes (1898-99, rev. 1910), among many many others. Certainly this influence wasn't due to Bellamy's command of plot or character, however; instead it was because of critique of his contemporary era and his blueprint for a future one.

Like a lot of utopias, Looking Backward claims to be constructed on rational lines: "no reflection would have cut the men of your wealth-worshiping century more keenly than the suggestion that they did not know how to make money. Nevertheless that is just the verdict history has passed on them. Their system of unorganized and antagonistic industries was as absurd economically as it was morally abominable. Selfishness was their only science, and in industrial production selfishness is suicide. Competition, which is the instinct of selfishness, is another word for dissipation of energy, while combination is the secret of efficient production" (160). That's one of many critiques in the book of 1888 society, promoting the idea that as seen from the future, there is no rational justification for the present. It's now a common trope of time travel narratives (Star Trek has had a lot of fun with this over the years), but Bellamy was its popularizer (if not its originator), and it probably accounts for a lot of the novel's power.
  Stevil2001 | Apr 28, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (32 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edward Bellamyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fromm, Erichsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miller, Walter JamesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
s.BENešCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zetkin, ClaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Preface: Living as we do in the closing year of the twentieth century, enjoying the blessings of a social order at once so simple and logical that it seems but the triumph of common sense, it is, no doubt, difficult for those whose studies have not been largely historical to realize that the present organization of society is, in its completeness, less than a century old.
I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140390189, Paperback)

It is the year 2000 - and full employment, material abundance and social harmony can be found everywhere. This is the America to which Julian West, a young Bostonian, awakens after more than a century of sleep. West's initial sense of wonder, his gradual acceptance of the new order and a new love, and Bellamy's wonderful prophetic inventions - electric lighting, shopping malls, credit cards, electronic broadcasting - ensured the mass popularity of this 1888 novel. But, however rich in fantasy and romance, "Looking Backward" is a passionate attach on the social ills of nineteenth-century industrialism and a plea for social reform and moral renewal. In her introduction, Cecelia Tichi discusses how the novel echoes the anguish and hopes of its own age while it embodies a sustaining myth of the American literary tradition - that man's perfectibility is attainable in the New World.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:17 -0400)

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A wealthy Bostonian awakes from a hypnotic trance to find himself in a futuristic cooperative commonwealth.

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