by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2017
Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward 2000 - 1887 in 1887. It is a future envisioning story, mixing science and social fiction, with the social side centering on the newly emerging concepts of socialism.
It was hugely popular in its time, coming in number three as a best seller after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur.
The 1880's were turbulent times with the turbulence centering on the changing social systems that were coming about as the Industrial Age transitioned into the even heavier industries of the Steel Age.
The turbulence was world wide and filled with surprises. In Europe the War of 1870 was fought between France and the newly assembled German Empire, and out of that emerged the short-lived Fourth Republic in France which was characterized by the Paris Commune. This was one of the first attempts at a socialist-style government and became quite memorable for that. In the US this was the time of the Haymarket Riot in 1886 which was a series of high emotion labor demonstrations in the Chicago area, police crackdowns and demonstrations in response, and a high-profile bomb throwing at one of the police demonstrations that created the enduring fearful image of the bomb-throwing anarchist.
In these times Bellamy published this book.
The first thing that came to mind as I started this book was a greater appreciation of the changes that 1930's writers like Hemingway and Steinbeck brought to writing styles. Man, this Bellamy book is wordy! And with really big words! That said, on with what the book is about.
The first few chapters establish how the protagonist, James West, gets to sleep for 130 years, Rip Van Winkle-style -- it is a reasonable science fiction premise. There are inconsistencies -- How does he get a restful one night's sleep? If it works so well for him, why isn't it an enduringly popular technique? -- but it is suitable for suspending disbelief.
One thing I noticed when he wakes up in the year 2000 is that people are speaking just like he did back in the 1880's. Ah... but I forgive. I don't try to predict language change in my SF stories, either. Guessing that transformation is a strain both for the author and the readers.
This book was assigned reading for a Technology class. It was presented as a future vision book written in the 1880's.
Well... it's about a future vision, all right, but that vision centers on a social system, not technological change. The social system Bellamy is writing about is proto-Socialism/Communism. As he describes it, this future system is one in which all businesses have continued to consolidate until there is just one business, and that one business is the government. His vision comes out a lot like what real-world Communism in its various incarnations has aspired to. In that, it seems to have been an inspiration for its contemporary readers.
The technology side of the book seems muddled and primitive. His forecasting for transportation and communication improvements are quite feeble. He doesn't forecast cars or telephones, instead he forecasts pneumatic tubes being the center of both goods transportation and communication. He does mention telephones, but then uses them like we do broadcast radios.
In this element Bellamy seems to have done much better at forecasting. He envisions a utopia centering on having a society so prosperous that everyone can get what they want... within reason, and with lots of equality in how the goods being made by all businesses... er, sorry, I should say the one business that is government, are handed out. Everyone starts out with the same share, and no one departs much from that condition.
The utopian vision extends even further: the society gets from the Gilded Age of the 1880's into this Utopia 2000 state without much violent social upheaval, instead it evolves into this as a consequence of the steady consolidation of all businesses into one business, and that one business is then run by the government.
He envisions shopping taking place in centralized, luxurious, but very uniform, neighborhood shopping stores. These stores are just a single business offering many products but the store layout is shopping mall-like. I find it interesting that the big inconvenience Bellamy sees this shopping style overcoming is the need to work hard at comparison shopping. He indicates that that was time consuming and hard to do in the Gilded Age.
My thought on reading that: "Ah-Hah! In our real world, this is a challenge that widespread advertising has helped solve." A new insight for me.
One element of humanity that Bellamy doesn't seem to take into account very much is human failings. Bellamy's utopia doesn't seem to have incompetent or greedy people in positions of power or responsibility and abusing those positions. The monolithic organization of the state is controlling all human activities, and in Bellamy's version it doesn't seem to have any incompetent or greedy people in the decision making positions. His vision does not even have people belly-aching about the decisions the government has made.
Closely related, the society seems quite static, as Mr. West wanders the neighborhood there aren't many changes-in-progress evident in infrastructure or lifestyle -- no one is talking about new buildings or new devices. This staticness of how the society is may be what allows incompetence and greed to make no difference in the society's performance. This is also a good description of a society that is at its peak. Bellamy doesn't say this about his utopia, but I see it as prepared to begin a harmonious and peaceful decline.
Bellamy doesn't address this issue directly, but it is at the heart of his utopia -- everyone in this society feels enfranchised. They feel like they are a significant part of the community and the community is paying attention to them and values their presence.
My opinion: strong feelings of enfranchisement are at the heart of any community that is experiencing social peace and contentment. This is the issue any social system has to be most sensitive to if it wants social harmony and contentment.
Bellamy's story is about future forecasting, but its great strength is social system forecasting not technology forecasting. He does a great job of describing a socialist-based utopia, but only a modestly good job at describing the technology this system is built upon.