Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy

Looking Backward is not a book that was on my reading list.  I had a book lined up to read, and then realized that I wouldn’t get through it, or, worse, finish it and not be fair to it.  I found myself in a rare situation — I was without a book, and I needed something before I went to the gym the next morning, before the library opened.  Luckily, my fiancé had a book from one of his college classes he thought I might like.  He handed me Looking Backward, and I’m glad he did.  It’s an interesting piece of speculative fiction with a Utopian bent.

Bellamy starts off his book in 1887, telling the story of Julian West, a resident of Boston, in the first person.  He talks about his life as a young man of the upper class, building a house and preparing for marriage.  One night, he goes home and heads down to the basement chamber he’s created for sleep when insomnia is affecting him.  He manages to fall asleep, only to find his chamber opened from above and strange people looking at him.

It turns out West has been asleep for over one hundred years.  Dr. Leete, his wife, and his daughter, Edith, have stumbled upon his room after digging for a construction project.  West originally expects that what Dr. Leete tells him about the date is a joke, but slowly comes to understand that his Boston is gone and that a new one is in its place.

What follows from here is a long exposition on what a socialist utopia would be like.  It was fascinating in the extreme to read what Bellamy planned for almost all aspects of life for future residents of the world.  He had an educational system worked out, a political system set up, international relations figured out, employment was straightened out, and even the (somewhat) equal sharing of labor between the sexes.  He thought of almost everything.

I found it especially intriguing that Bellamy had thought of some things that have come to pass.  He had a credit card system that, while it had more of a chit feature than the magnetic strip we use today, functioned in a similar way to our debit cards.  He also had a radio system with published guides that sounded to me like a mix of our radio and television system.  It’s neat that he hit some things right from so far back.

There were two things about the book that I disliked.  The first was the tendency for Dr. Leete’s dialogue to become paragraph-upon-paragraph description of his own time and criticism of the past.  No actual person, besides college professors, gets to talk at people like that.  The whole point of something being a conversation is that there’s at least two people involved.  As a result, the book is very noticeably a piece of hopeful propaganda.

The second thing I didn’t like was the development of the relationships between the Leetes, and Edith in particular, and West.  It did not feel organic, most likely because they were constructed in order to provide some sort of plot to create a vehicle for the political views Bellamy held.  A more solid fiction would have made it a more compelling and interesting read from a pleasure standpoint.

Overall, I thought Looking Backward was a neat piece of history.  I liked being able to see what people in the Progressive Era were thinking about their society.  I learned a lot, and I am thus grateful to my fiancé for lending it to me.  I almost can’t wait until I run out of reading material again to see what he turns up.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Filed under 3.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

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