Note: This review refers to 1995 Bedford Books edition, edited and with large introductory essay by Daniel H. Borus. This edition totals 202 pages of critical and fictional content.
Imagine, if you will, a writer popular enough to earn a living off of writing in the late 19th Century, yet not popular enough to leave a large mark on his contemporary society. This writer wrote about everything wrong with contemporary society in pleasantly written novels with steady pacing and predictable conclusions. Then one day, this writer decided to envision what his ideal America would be and became a national sensation.
This writer is Edward Bellamy. His novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, has its rightful share of criticism related to the story itself. Almost any article you can find on the novel will comment on how preposterous it is that no effort is made to scientifically explain how a man can be put in a trance in 1887 and wake up in 2000 with no aging, no medical issues, and no possible repercussions other than confusion to answer to. There's a really predictable romantic arc, almost a love at first sight situation, that distracts from the forward thinking narrative thrust. Perhaps worst of all, Bellamy predicted his utopian society would not be fully realized in 2000, but only 50 years into the future.
The impact of Looking Backward was a political one at the time. Bellamy's version of Nationalism sparked political parties and activists, from Populists to feminists to socialists. He envisioned an America in which everyone would be on equal footing. We would all work for the same number of years at whatever job we wanted and receive the same pay. Differences in difficult would be accounted for with work hours: manual labor, such as coal miners, would work the least, while less stressful occupations would work the most. Men and women would be equal. All races would be equal. The government would run all industry to ensure this equality. Retired citizens would be the artists and creators, ensuring new artistic works could be created for all time without worry of how the artist would survive.
For me, I think the prose itself is lovely. Bellamy's descriptions are long and luxe, explaining why society changed and what it changed to, but intentionally never explaining how. It's a natural progression, one that's matched by a light touch of Realism to ground the narrative in something more traditional. The main character faces significant psychological torment upon waking up in a utopia nothing like his previous life and repeatedly has to be talked off the cliff by the family watching over him.
What the story lacks in a straightforward narrative it makes up for with interesting ideas. It is a novel of ideas and one of the more tangibly influential political novels in history. The parties Bellamy influenced would successfully lobby for many of the welfare reforms he called for in the novel.
Looking Backward: 2000-1887 is an interesting read to see just how much America has changed in the past 100-plus years.