Now that my mysterious illness has taken a hike, I was able to finish Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. I’ve always had a soft spot for dystopian novels. They are the equivalent to me of horror novels. Never been much for blood but give me an evil government to thwart and I am riveted by the story. There is something about them that is just fascinating. You root for the underdogs, the ones who know in their bones that there is something wrong. Or they terrify you when those underdogs fold. Seriously. The ending of 1984 freaks me out to this day.
What I haven’t read too many of is the utopian novels. The stories where human have miraculously figured out how to solve all of humanity’s problems. One, they are often less interesting. After all, no conflict would exist in an utopian society and where is the story without conflict? Two, we don’t seem to write them very much, especially these days. Dystopians are more fun (See: the latest love for Hunger Games, an awesome dystopian trilogy. I recommend); the evil government, the crazy rules and regulations, the fly by the seat of the pants escapes and near misses. Great storytelling if handled right. However, Dystopians and Utopians have a problem. They tend to be long-winded, in love with themselves and in general, way too heavy on the explanations on how everything works. For the dystopian example, I read Atlas Shrugged this year. It had been on my shelves for years after I fell in love with Ayn Rand’s Anthem in ninth grade. I finally got around to reading it this summer and realized it wasn’t only the length of the book that had intimidated me. Rand is long winded, preachy and boring. The famous speech of John Galt is over 100 pages long. I lost interest after six. Not to mention, Rand and I had a philosophical disagreement halfway through the novel and aren’t really on speaking terms anymore. Though my yearly read of Anthem is coming up, perhaps we’ll make up in time for me to go in search of the word “I” again.
I am afraid my latest read, and utopian novel, came across the same issues, though thankfully discusses them in 800 pages less than Atlas Shrugged. Bellamy’s Looking Backward was a sensation when it was first published in 1889. The novel follows Julian West’s adventure in the year 2000 when he awakes after a 113 year old trance. The majority of the novel is spent in long discussions about how everything works at the end of the 20th century. There is one central government, one central employer. Poverty, disease and inequality have been vanquished and everyone is now equal and provided for by the government. I had to laugh when I read after the fact that Bellamy had put in a love story to make the novel more readable. He wasn’t joking. The cute but predictable love story was about the only time I wasn’t skimming the novel. The long, drawn out explanations about how employment, education, production and distribution worked as well as the long treatise on property ownership were just, well, boring. Impressive in how well though out they were by a late 19th century author, but nothing resembling the 21st century we now know. I think I will stick to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and their ideas of the future. At least theirs were more fun and included men still acting like men. I think this bothers me most about Bellamy’s vision. It is strictly socialist for the most part. His logic, while believable, consistently disregards man’s nature for selfishness (reason number one socialism doesn’t work though it sounds great on paper). He tries to reason that part of our nature away. At least with the corrupted states of dystopias, man’s nature is still well intact and acknowledged, even if it’s not supposed to exist.
I always enjoy a novel like this though, to spend time wondering “what if?” and to rehash the great dystopian novels and how much they freaked me out as a kid. I mean, to a book lover, can you imagine what Fahrenheit 451 did?!