Saturday, February 28, 2015

February's Book: Looking Backward

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
Science Fiction (1887 - 217 pp.)

Looking Backward: 2000-1887, commonly cited as one of the most influential books of its day, presents a novel concept. A man falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in 2000, fully intact, healthy as ever, ready to see the new world. It fits neatly into late Victorian science fiction by being wholly unrealistic enough to ever happen yet more contemplative and didactic than escapist. In a way, it is like H.G. Wells's The Time Machine meets Samuel Johnson's Rasselas.

The most striking aspect of Looking Backward is how presciently Bellamy predicts so much of the future. Everything from credit cards (57) to alarm clocks (90) to the United Nations (91) to possibly even World War I (201) is a simple fact of Bellamy's 2000... rather like our own. Although Bellamy's credit cards function more like prepaid cards, they are otherwise like our credit cards, and Looking Backward's lack of money negates the need for interest rates.

The freedom of choice inherent in the new economy appears a little too market-oriented for socialist-minded Bellamy at times. That people choose to buy some goods over others, that the government adjusts prices based on demand, that people are incentivized toward less desirable jobs through more favourable work hours... really seems very much like the system Bellamy rails against. The more structural issue I take with Looking Backward, that perhaps was unforeseeable to Bellamy, is that the adult work schedule of general labour from 21-24 and then school until 30 maximum probably would not work too well with modern graduate education. A possible solution would be to exempt future professors from general labour much like students have been exempt from military service in the past, which fits well with Bellamy's "industrial army".

Looking Backward's didactic style and lack of plot unfortunately do not lead to well-developed characters. The most glaring example is how Julian West never seems surprised enough by his surroundings; a simple couple sentences telling, not showing, his surprise and then a segue into political debate is apparently enough. This is the book's one drawback. In a twist Bellamy could not have anticipated, baby name popularity fluctuated considerably since the 1850s, making a character named Edith in the year 2000 highly unlikely. Then again, if the reader has already suspended disbelief for a man rocketing 113 years into the future, why can the reader not also accept that a woman born in the 1970s have a name that was more common a century earlier?

For a book without much of a plot and with poor characters, Looking Backward is a page-turner. Now that is a compliment.

Ease of Reading: 5
Educational Content: 8

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