On “Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887” by Edward Bellamy

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about “The Sleeper Awakes.” At some point in that book, Graham (the protagonist) compares his situation to that described by Bellamy; and earlier in the book, when he is sound asleep and has only been asleep for a few decades at most, we see his friends talking about the same thing. Curious as I was upon reading that name I chose to google it. (I don’t quite remember exactly what I googled but it was probably something like “Bellamy Socialist Utopia Sleeper.”) I found out that there was a book by an Edward Bellamy called “Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887” in which a man sleeps for somewhere slightly above a century and, you guessed it, wakes up in a world vastly different from the one he slept in. I downloaded that book right away and made a mental note to read it after finishing “The Sleeper Awakes.”

A few hours ago, I finished reading “Looking Backward” and I thought I might as well write about it and throw in a few words about the similarities and differences between the two books. There are SPOILERS AHEAD so proceed at your own risk. 

So, like Graham, Julian West (the protagonist of Bellamy’s utopia,) is also an insomniac and near the start of the book falls into a deep sleep. He wakes up to voices of people talking near him and finds himself in the company of a man slightly older than himself who introduces himself as a Dr. Leete and almost immediately informs him about his century-long nap and gives a brief recount of how he came to discover his sleeping form. Julian calls bullshit and makes a run for it and eventually finds himself looking upon a city he doesn’t recognize and therefore chooses to believe that he really did sleep for a century. In the rest of the book, we have conversations between Julian and Dr. Leete, and occasionally between Julian and Dr. Leete’s daughter, in which Dr. Leete familiarizes Julian with the twentieth century social order.

Bellamy’s utopia is a rather heavenly place where the nation controls the industries and everyone works for the nation and therefore each other. There’s no concept of wages and every citizen gets an equal amount of credit, renewed annually, that they used to buy commodities, from stores available at walking distance from practically every dwelling. Everyone is equally rich and therefore there’s little to no motive for crime which is almost non-existent. In the rare event that someone commits a crime, it is passed off as a mental illness and treated in medical centers. Everyone gets the same opportunities for education and everyone gets to choose their line of work in which they have to serve a fixed term after which they may do as they please with their lives. All jobs are equally arduous and equally respected.

This contrasts with the dystopia Graham wakes up in, the social order of which was only worse than the present day considering that the general populace led a life full of suffering and almost completely deprived of pleasure and satisfaction and little chances of improvement in their living conditions.

Like Graham, no sooner had Julian awoken from his slumber that he realized that something was being kept from him and soon enough he confirms it from none other than the woman he goes on to fall in love with. However, the secret being kept from Julian was nowhere close to being as dark as the things that were being kept from Graham and on the contrary, it was rather a pleasant one that only changed Julian’s already changed life for the better.

In every conversation with Julian, Dr. Leete never shied away from talking about how terrible the lives of the people were in Julian’s times and how selfish a life the common man led and how things in the twentieth century were infinitely better from those in the nineteenth as in the new world order the people lived for each other and not for themselves. And so it’s not hard for any of us to imagine the pain Julian felt when he went to sleep only to wake up again in his past life and realize that all of the 20th century crap was a dream. And when you come to think of it, there may have been a couple of hints earlier in the book about this. There was, for example the fact that the girl in the dream had the same name as his betrothed from his past life and that the new world could barely be said to be technologically advanced and although there were some new things, they were all based on technology that existed during Julian’s days. Another hint was when Julian asked Dr. Leete to explain some things to him should he have to explain them to his contemporaries if he were to somehow sleep backwards through time. I would go ahead and say that I actually saw coming the part about it all being a dream.

But then as we read about his walk across the 19th century Boston to his in-laws’ house, during which he is clearly disgusted and amused by the state of things that, in the 30 years of his life, he had never had the eye to see. And that’s when it hit me. What if this is the dream. And sure enough, as Julian tried to induce in his fellowmen feelings of sympathy and love towards the poor whose cries they can hear loud and clear from the streets, only to be looked at with contempt and thrown out of the house, he wakes up, once again, in the Leete house with his eyes full of tears.

So, although it really wasn’t my intention, I did end up summarizing the plot of the book. There are two differences from Graham’s dystopian life to note here. The first one is that Julian’s ending was written, without any ambiguity, as a happy one, whereas the last we read of Graham was him falling to his death. The second thing to note is that, as already mentioned, Julian’s utopia showed little to no advancement in technology whereas Graham’s dystopia had all sorts of cool gimmicks.

Let’s talk about the utopian technology though. The audio streaming system in the music room was said to be connected via telephone lines. I do distinctly remember that in 2000, the most common way to connect to the internet was via telephone lines. Secondly, the credit cards used are very vaguely described but at one point Bellamy writes “the clerk had punched the value of her purchase out of the credit card” which weakly suggests that the credit cards used a mechanism similar to that of the punched cards that were used for feeding programs into early digital computers.

The reason I chose to talk about this is although 2000 didn’t have most of the programs and devices we rely on today, all the primary features of present day technology were still, in one form or another, already available back then. However, there weren’t a lot of people that were actually aware of this and I know for a fact that in the third world countries, the people were barely aware of the internet or in some cases even computers. The internet wasn’t a commodity back then and people were able to live without it. Those that used it commonly used it via a telephone line. The brilliance in Bellamy’s world, is that it somehow manages to, in terms of technology, very closely mirror life in 2000. Yes, there was technology allowing for real fast communication but it wasn’t developed or used enough for it to be particularly noticeable.

 

Anas Ismail Khan

 

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