I’ve always been intrigued that when writers do create future societies they choose to create Dystopias. Fabricating a screwed-up world, I guess, is a lot more interesting: it makes for far more compelling reading than any idealized world since conflict fuels plot, and adding unheard-of technology does spice things up, too. In short, a perfected world is boring reading, as flat and uninteresting as a thumb-less glove. The writer simply isn’t upping the ante for the reader to turn that page in our world of multiple deficits, addiction to adrenaline and Hemingwayesque intolerance for three-syllable words, exposition, and sentences with numerous semicolons.
The truth is that dystopias far outweigh utopias. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) or Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) is a sonorous yawn for most modern readers. A quick survey of dystopias gives us Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), numerous Stephen King pieces, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974), Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977); but the grand-daddy of them all still seems to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which borrowed heavily from Zamyatin’s We (1924). Orwell still amazes us with how language is malleable. His thought police and Big Brother do scare us precisely because the world they inhabit is plausible. Unlike G. Gordon Liddy, who captured, killed, cooked and ate a rat to overcome his fear of the rodent, I still cringe when I read Winston’s confrontation with rats.
Dystopias also make for compelling movies, from the silent-film Metropolis on down to Blade Runner and others; but there is only one fictional utopia that I know of that inspired national discussion groups, and spurred political action. The writing style is not particularly riveting but the ideas in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward from 1889 are worth revisiting. In terms of national debate and sales, Looking Backward rivaled Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Looking Backward is a take-off on Rip Van Winkle. Young Bostonian Julian West, an insomniac, employs a mesmerist to help him get a good night’s sleep. West sleeps for over a hundred years. He wakes up in the year 2000. The bulk of the novel is Julian exploring and understanding how the world has changed in a series of conversations with Dr. Leete. I’ve bulleted out some of the changes:
- Industry is nationalized and what people produce is equally distributed.
- Money is abolished but people have debit cards for the things they need or want. There is no debt. Wages are variable, but menial workers work fewer hours.
- Crime is low. The deterrent to crime is to confess when guilty, because the penalty is doubled if the accused is found guilty of perjury. Prosecution and defense must agree on the verdict.
- No police. No lawyers. No salesmen.
- All work is a form of public service.
- Women are recognized for child-care and domestic work. They are compensated.
- Education is compulsory up to age twenty-one. ‘The working life’ ends at forty-five.
Technology does not figure much in the novel, although Bellamy does describe warehouse clubs for buying goods (think Costco) and his Julian describes hearing sermons over a “cable telephone,” which might anticipate the radio. Reading this short list, I can anticipate some of the obvious questions, such as international politics, one person or group of people wanting more than John Q. Citizen, or what about the inevitable bad apple, the criminal in society? Bellamy does answer all of these questions.
The novel led to the creation of social discussion groups, the Bellamy Clubs. Before jumping to the idea that the book is a platform for socialist or communist ideas, I need to emphasize that Bellamy saw the work as pure speculation, a work of the imagination. While America had experienced labor unrest, the catastrophic and violent Homestead and Pullman Strikes of 1892 and 1894, respectively, were years away from Looking Backward. Critics, detractors, and subsequent readers have detected quasi-socialist and communist elements in the novel, but this is hindsight interpretation: socialism and Marxist socialism are complicated permutations of an economic theory. Marxism and Socialism are interrelated phenomena, but they are distinct socio-economic theories. Communism is different in that it calls for violence; it did not exist until the October Revolt in Russia in 1917. U.S. history has shown that although American socialism did exist, it did not last very long.
The closest that the U.S. ever came to socialism was in Eugene V. Debs, who had founded the Socialist Party of America (SPA) after the Pullman Strike. Debs would run for the presidency five times. He amassed 1 million votes in the 1912 presidential election, which included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and William Howard Taft. Wilson would win the election and become the last Democrat until FDR in 1932. Debs would again receive another million votes in the 1920 presidential election as a write-in candidate while in prison. Failing to convict him for violating the Espionage Act because Debs had worded his public statements carefully, the Supreme Court did convict and imprison him for having spoken against recruitment for World War I. Sentenced to ten years, Debs was released early without a pardon, but received kindly by President Harding at the White House upon his release. Deb died in 1926 from deteriorating health issues related to his prison term. Debs had read Bellamy in the late 1880s
In addition to the Bellamy Clubs, Looking Backward inspired numerous literary responses, both domestic and foreign, in much the same way the Twilight Series has today. Abroad, the novel inspired Sir Ebenezer Howard to establish the Garden City movement in England, while here in the U.S., the novel influenced the architectural design of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, which ironically provided the setting for numerous movies, including the dystopian Blade Runner.
Bellamy would write a sequel, Equality, in which he addressed women’s issues. Looking Backward and Equality are available for free for Kindle readers on Amazon. Edward Bellamy died in his hometown of Chicopee, Massachusetts at the age of forty-eight from TB in 1897.