Monday, January 5, 2009

Looking Backward (A Review)

The first thing that stands out from Edward Bellamy's 1887 socialist Utopian novella Looking Backward, 2000-1887 is that this is NOT a good book. What it is instead is one of those literary fads that temporarily grip the nation but lack any real staying power beyond some historical significance or maybe as part of a class on the history of popular fiction, American intellectual thought, or progressive politics in the USA. Of course, a lot of great fiction was written in order to make social or political point: The Grapes of Wrath, All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch-22, and The Awakening all come to mind. But what makes these works succeed is the fact that the message seems secondary to a powerful, moving, or darkly humorous story. "Pecado de Omisión" by Ana María Matute, for example, hides strong criticism of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in what appears to be a surrealist tale of a shepherd and his tyrannical cousin. Overall, I got the impression that Looking Backward was the result of Bellamy's awareness that most people are not going to read an economic treatise.

Looking Backward is just that: a treatise thinly disguised as science fiction. On the one hand, in the information-driven society of the real twenty-first century it's certainly not unreasonable for any random citizen to be able to offer an adequate explanation on what makes our society tick. Yet Dr. Leete, a physician, rambles on and on about the minute workings of the government and economy for six uninterrupted pages. The "plot" itself is as dry as his lectures. For one, the world of 2000 is never fully realized beyond a platform for Bellamy to espouse his economic theories. (Some of which are astonishing in their hypocrisy. In order to eliminate corruption, for example, he imagines voting restricted to only a few "honorary members" of society.) Bellamy provides no description of the Boston of the future except that it's apparently very grand, splendid, clean, and orderly. There is simply no feeling of setting: the feelings and images evoked by descriptive prose. The characters, meanwhile, are as flat as the pages, exhibiting no unique personality, no true emotion, no life as anything other than cardboard props to people a plot.

So needless to say, learning of the book's extraordinary popularity was rather surprising. Not only because Bellamy just couldn't write, but the message as well. Quite frankly, I found Bellamy's vision of the future extremely disturbing. A quote at the end of the book sums it up:
Some time after this it was that I recall a glimpse of myself standing on the steps of a building on Tremont Street looking at a military parade. A regiment was passing. It was the first sight in that dreary day which had inspired me with any other emotions than wondering pity and amazement. Here at last were order and reason, an exhibition of what intelligent coöperation can accomplish. The people who stood looking on with kindling faces, - could it be that the sight had for them no more than but a spectacular interest? Could they fail to see that it was their perfect concert of action, their organization under one control, which made these men the tremendous engine they were, able to vanquish a mob ten times as numerous? Seeing this so plainly, could they fail to comprehend the scientific manner in which the nation went to war with the unscientific manner in which it went to work?
In other words, Bellamy's ideal society is essentially one big military organization.

In the Year 2000, the state supplies everything, down to the awnings that automatically come down to cover the sidewalks during rain. In other words, there is no conflict: no reason to exercise emotional strength, no learning experience, no reason to take initiative or be innovative, and absolutely nothing to inspire art or literature. How can you compose a compelling story when everyone is satisfied and happy? Everything is regimented, everything falls into place. "You're just another brick in the wall," so to speak. The superficiality of the Leete family characters was not merely the result of poor writing, I feel, but the lack of room in their society for individuality. (What if you WANTED to walk in the rain?) But even in Bellamy's own time, people expressed unease with his vision. There were several unauthorized dystopic sequels to Looking Backward that were published shortly afterwards. Several deal with revolution and an overblown socialist bureaucracy on the brink of collapse; in another, Julian West's warnings about the threat of Chinese military invasion are ignored by a populace unable to think for itself and dissent from official state opinion.

In the end, Looking Backward is fascinating from anthropological and historical perspective. It was intriguing to see how visions of an ideal world have changed and what is Utopia to one era is Dystopia to another. (Definitely check out the Thomas More story that inspired the entire genre.) But as actual literature, "Looking Backward" is epic fail.

For further insight on Bellamy's socioeconomic theories, check out my three-part story "Temperance is Fun!" Part II has most of the Bellamy criticism.


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