Julian West awakes to find that centuries have gone by, and society is much changed.
Looking Backward is more of a socio-economic treatise than a novel. Each chapter essentially picks a point or two (labor, say) and explains how if we only did such and such, utopia would result. That’s no surprise – that’s pretty much what it says on the back cover. The surprise is that despite this strong concentration of analysis, the framing works surprisingly well. The protagonist, Julian West, comes across as an interesting fellow, and if his coming romance is not exactly a surprise, it’s still warm and nice.
The book is hampered, of course, in being viewed from a post-Soviet vantage. We’ve seen a version of what Bellamy predicted, and it didn’t work. To be fair, Bellamy might not have been very much in favor of what the Soviets actually achieved, but it’s the closest thing we’ve seen to what he proposed (the current Chinese model is moving away from his views, not toward them).
The main failing of the book is its overly rosy view of human nature. Bellamy takes pains to argue that his proposals work because they play to self interest, but too many of the details are glossed over. The incentives that he does describe complicate the simple system that he started out to describe. I’m more idealistic than most, and I enjoyed the concepts Bellamy lays out. It’s fun to think about, but hindsight makes me sceptical that any of it would actually work, or that it would be a good idea. There simply aren’t adequate safeguards built in against corruption.
Bellamy takes his best shot at acknowledging and addressing the stumbling blocks. The hardest ones, of course, are the ones he doesn’t know are there. On the question of gender (which he leaves so late that I feared he wouldn’t address it at all), he goes not for ‘separate but equal’, but for ‘separate and it’s amazing how much those little women accomplish’. The question of race (which enters through his 1887 ‘colored’ servant), doesn’t get a mention in the analysis.
All in all, I was surprised at Bellamy’s literary skill (I liked the initial analogy of society as a coach pulled by the poor, with the rich ever at risk of sliding out of their high seats), and this was a book worth reading. I don’t see reading the sequel, but I do expect to try some of his more literary work, to see if his style holds up when he’s writing about less serious issues.
Also – he offers a sort-of preview of the (ebook) self-publishing industry. Not very close, but still interesting.