January books 4) Looking Backward

4) Looking Backward: from 2000 to 1887, by Edward Bellamy (another one that I read on my PDA)

It’s always fun to read people’s literary predictions of how the future will work out (apart from the obvious examples like 1984, go and check out the time-line in The Martian Chronicles, for instance). Bellamy’s hero, Julian West (whose Dublin-based namesake is known to several people reading this) goes to sleep in his Boston home one day in 1887 and awakes in the year 2000 (“the last year of the twentieth century”) to discover that not just the United States but the entire world has been transformed into a Communist utopia. Of course, such an enterprise had never been tried in 1887; fifteen years on from 1989, it seems to me clear that the battle between market forces and central planning, the main crux of Bellamy’s argument, has been decisively settled in favour of the former. There really isn’t a plot, apart from the final two chapters where we have a love interest and a proto-Philip K. Dick moment.

The most striking success in Bellamy’s predictions of the future is his description of piped music from various different programmes being available at the touch of a button in every house (of course, it was all to be live, classical music, with the occasional uplifting sermon, but still not a bad try). His most striking failure is to show any imagination whatsoever about relations between men and women. In one excruciating passage, we learn that “so far is marriage from being an interference with a woman’s career, that the [best jobs] are intrusted only to women who have been both wives and mothers, as they alone fully represent their sex.” No conditions of marriage or paternity are made for men, and traditional marriage remains the only conceivable relationship sanctioned by society. Much of the book is presented as conversation between the narrator and his host, often after dinner “when the ladies had retired”. It seems to me that Plato was much more imaginative on this area in The Republic. (Also notably the only non-white character mentioned is the narrator’s nineteenth-century servant.)

Still, it’s at least a little thought-provoking to read such utopian literature now that the experiment has been tried, and reflect on why it didn’t work.

One thought on “January books 4) Looking Backward

  1. I loved Neverwhere… nothing particularly special about it, mind you. It was just a good read to me.

    As for Pratchett, oops, I meant to choose The Truth, not Going Postal.

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