In his utopian novel, Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy attempts to introduce the reader to a marvelous new world in the year 2000, which happens to be one hundred some odd years ahead of his current time, not to mention the time of his current protagonist. While there are a few more scholarly issues that I wish to discuss, and I promise that I will get to them quite shortly, I would likely go insane if I did not begin by analyzing what I see as a very key difficulty within the work. Namely that Bellamy failed almost spectacularly in the actual construction of the work.
I do not want to dismiss the utopia Bellamy discovers, as I’ll get to in a bit here, but I’m instead referring to his means of introducing his audience to said utopia. It seems that Bellamy missed the instructions suggesting that it is far better for an author to show his reader details rather than tell the reader all about it. Bellamy continually displays an absolutely fascinating view of the future, one filled with a surprisingly high number of fountains; however, he does so primarily by having an educator character tell the narrator all the various details. These descriptive passages are delivered to the reader in long, dry monologues that read more like something out of Plato’s Republic than an actual novel. That is not to say that there isn’t a plot and that Bellamy didn’t have some opportunity for movement there; there exist bits between these long dry monologues that detail precisely that. In these much smaller segments, we see the world simultaneously with the narrator, Julian West, instead of being told about it. I refer primarily to almost enchanting sections wherein Julian wanders about in the world, often in the accompaniment of his (surprisingly developed in consideration to the work and age) love interest, Edith. A solid example of this can be seen in the shopping trip, wherein Edith serves as a guide to Julian, showing him the wonders of the interior mall and the workings of the society.
I want to briefly compare the work to another, similar, work: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In that work, we also receive a displaced, intelligent narrator who encounters a strange world that reflects quite strongly upon the society from which the narrator came. However, whereas Bellamy introduces the majority of his world via the narration of the dry doctor, Swift allows his readers to follow along with Gulliver in discovering the various fascinating bits of the various lands Gulliver voyages to. Thus when we wish to learn about, say, the court of the Lilliputians, we read Gulliver’s testimony of his own observations and interactions, instead of having, say a minister of Lilliput outlining all the particular details for it. It’s quite clear to me that Bellamy could certainly have learned by reading this work, and constructed something that was much more readable (and, I’ll confess, more enjoyable too).
However, as I said from the beginning, this does not dismiss the meat of the novel, namely the utopian world which Bellamy constructed so masterfully. It becomes quite clear to most readers (okay, so this is a bit of an assumption on my part; it was abundantly clear to this reader) that Bellamy is using the future and the utopian construct to discuss the social issues of his current day. The work opens with West worrying over the various worker conditions, albeit in more personal terms (hey, who can blame him? People are often more concerned with their own worlds, and none more so than the middle/upper class of modern, err, nineteenth century USA). This trend continues throughout the text, as embedded within the aforementioned lectures upon the current socio-econmic situation are various hints towards the problems of the day. In point of fact, West at several points directly asks how to the paradise he’s found himself in solved all the various problems. Naturally the answers come across as almost too simple (credit cards, malls, and semi-equality among women [there’s so much about women here that you could construct an entire blog post around it]), which again, makes sense given the situation. If we were asked how we managed to deal with that pesky feudalism problem, our answers would likely be close to the same (i.e. so easy: independent thought, restructuring of socio-economic class, and a lot more fountains). What Bellamy attempts, and I would argue that in this he has at least some success, is therefore to offer these reasonable solutions as actual viable ones.
I am hardly the first (semi)intellectual to come to similar conclusions. Writing upon the utopia, Philip Wegner explicitly states that “the narrative utopia first successfully performs another pedagogical operation: teaching its audiences how to think of the spaces they already inhabit in a new critical fashion” (17). He continues along this line a handful of pages later, stating that “the version (of utopia) offered is less of some radically other place than that of a ‘repaired’ present” (20). By building on these ideas, we can conclude that Bellamy was, in fact, attempting to project his present into the utopia, using its perfection to showcase the ideas and demonstrate how the present could, to use Wegner’s term be ‘repaired”. Bellamy clearly had concerns and issues with the current socio-economic clime, which is hardly surprising since that very subject is so prevalent throughout the literature of the period (Dickens serving as a great example [and a personal favorite], not to mention one that is referred in Looking Backward as being a favorite of the age, which is rather prophetic, if you stop to think about it [which sort of sums up the novel as a whole, doesn’t it?]). therefore what he clearly set out to do was outline the solutions to that problem, and he did so via the path of the utopia, likely believing it to be a more digestible method of getting the point across, as opposed to the political tract he almost clearly wanted to write (though there would be a decided dirth of fountains in a political tract, a travesty if there ever was one). Thus does Bellamy construct one of the first science fiction novels, and one that is certainly worthy of consideration and analysis.