This article originally appeared at WALReader.com, the website of our magazine.
I recently finished the book Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, published in 1888. If that name sounds familiar to you, there’s good reason: Bellamy was one of the best-selling authors of the 19th century and one of the ideological leaders of the populist movements of that time.
I’d give this book a 2 or 3 out of 5 if the dang ideas in it weren’t so interesting and fleshed-out. For that reason, I give it a 4 out of 5. As a novel though, it falls flat.
This book is a political/sociological manifesto disguised as a novel – paragraphs of philosophical minutiae are disguised as “dialogue” and the entire plot is just the outline of an essay with random settings thrown in here and there. The characters serve absolutely no function and have zero depth until the last 5 pages.
Nevertheless, the ideas that are expressed very thoroughly in these pages are fascinating – especially considering that they came from 1888 (though, given that it was 1888, the author’s racist and sexist views do occasionally slip out). It is well worth a read for anyone who rejects the idea that the present economic and political order is the pinnacle of human progress.
I’d be curious to know how many of Looking Backward‘s readers thought this was a tale of a utopia or a tale of a dystopia.