September 10, 2012

Waking up in the future and 'Looking Backward'

Imagine going to sleep way back in 1887, and waking up on September 10, 2000. That's exactly what happened to the fictitious Julian West in the 1887 novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. The young West, who comes from an affluent and privileged Boston family, had trouble sleeping in 1887 and turned to the aid of mesmerism. While in this unusually deep trance, his house burns down, though he is safely hidden away in an underground room:

There was a rustle of garments and I opened my eyes. A fine looking man of perhaps sixty was bending over me, an expression of much benevolence mingled with great curiosity upon his features. He was an utter stranger. I raised myself on an elbow and looked around. The room was empty. I certainly had never been in it before, or one furnished like it. I looked back at my companion. He smiled.

"How do you feel?" he inquired.

"Where am I?" I demanded.

"You are in my house," was the reply.

West is in the home of Dr. Leete, who discovered the underground room on his property in the year 2000. Over the next few days, Leete tells West of how the United States has changed in the intervening 113 years. The world he describes is, in fact, a form of socialism.

Bellamy has carefully considered every aspect of this Utopian future. There is no crime, or any need for it, as all people are paid exactly the same amount of money regardless of their job. In fact, all occupations are considered equal, from a waiter to a medical doctor (the more difficult jobs are rewarded with fewer hours on the clock, but still equal the same salary of all others). As a result, there are no social classes, and even the mentally challenged or physically disabled are cared for with dignity. Artists and authors are patronized by subsidies from supporters who choose to pay them in anticipation of their work. Even a reader of the real 21st century will have a hard time finding any "plotholes" in Bellamy's structure of government and society; he considered everything (by 1887 standards, anyway).

Looking Backward became hugely popular; it is consistently listed as the third highest-selling novel of the century (after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur). The achievement is odd: the book has virtually no plot and is framed merely as several days of conversations, with drama artificially inserted (along with a terribly superficial love story).

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