Looking Forward to Going Backward
Probably the most well-known and certainly the most influential utopian novel by an American is Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy, first published in 1888. It is a Utopia in Time, set in what was then the future year of 2000. This is in contrast to the earlier Utopia in Space, set in the present day though somewhere else on Earth. It seems to me that the Utopia in Time became necessary and the Utopia in Space implausible as the world's undiscovered places shrank away from the Age of Exploration onward. Utopian novels were popular, too, during the very progressive-minded nineteenth century. Looking Backward is another in a line of such works. You could say that the title is ironic in more ways than one. For example, Looking Backward is actually a look forward, into a socialist future. There will forever be a double irony in the Socialist's headlong rush and ceaseless drive towards the medieval, feudalistic past of which he is so enamored.
We can forgive nineteenth-century naïveté about the nature and effects of the socialist regime. The horrors of twentieth-century socialism had yet to bubble from the bowels of the earth and the dark heart of humanity when Bellamy wrote. In fact, he failed to make it to the new century, dying as he did in 1898. Like H.P. Lovecraft, he was a New Englander, and like Lovecraft, he went too soon into his grave. (1) Oddly enough, Lovecraft also had to his credit a work called Looking Backward. Written and serialized in 1919-1920 and published as a booklet in 1920, Lovecraft's Looking Backward is an essay on the early days of amateur journalism.
Were authors of the nineteenth century really so naïve as to have swallowed whole the socialist fantasies of their day? Actually no. A few months before Looking Backward came out, a few readers had the chance to read a preemptive strike against it. The Republic of the Future: or, Socialism a Reality by Anna Bowman Dodd has never been as well known or widely read as Bellamy's book, yet it has proved far more prescient: leave it to the Conservative always to envision clearly the disastrous results of the progressive program. And she was a woman to boot. (A woman in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, meaning a woman.)
The first or one of the first dystopian novels of the nineteenth century, The Last Man (1826), was also by a woman, Mary Shelley. That fact strengthens the case that she was the originator of the genre of science fiction. Her title anticipated the Nietzschean concept of the Last Man, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883-1885). All lead to works of the twentieth century, including Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis (1943).
The dystopian novel was a subgenre quick to reach maturity. There are dystopian elements in The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895), as well as in other of his works. (2) The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908) features a well-developed concept of dystopian society and totalitarian means. I wrote about The Iron Heel five years ago. At the time I made a distinction between London's fictional capitalistic or oligarchical dystopia and the real-world, socialistic governmental or political dystopia, the distinction being that the former seems implausible, while evidence of the latter is abundant in countless millions of starved and murdered dead during the last century. I admit that I was skeptical of Jack London's vision. Now I'm not so sure. In fact I'm starting to see that he may have been right in his way. What he failed to foresee, however, is that we would have a seeming contradiction: a regime formed by capitalist leftists, by illiberal liberals not very interested in exercising conventional political power, not when working outside of government and within culture and commerce is so much more satisfying and surer to get them what they want, which is the same old-fashioned remaking of the world according to their vision.
Anyway, a really astonishing thing happened in 1924: E.P. Dutton of New York published an English translation of We by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, and in it we had a fully formed Dystopia, a model for all subsequent stories of its kind and undoubtedly an influence on many of them. I call it astonishing because of its precociousness: written in 1920-1921, We came before the establishment of--even before the coining of the word--totalitarianism, and yet Zamyatin's novel has it all so right. (He was of course a witness to the formation of the regime that would become the U.S.S.R.) We had its precedents to be sure. The parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) is an obvious example. (3) But here, sprung from the earth like a well-armed warrior from a dragon's tooth, came a novel that still stands, and is as fresh and pertinent now as the day it rolled off of the presses nearly a century ago . . .
The year after Weird Tales was first published.
To be continued . . .
|The dust jacket from the 1951 Modern Library edition of Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, with a design by the adopted Hoosier artist E. McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954).|
(1) I mentioned in my previous entry that the utopian novel has become a rarity. Now I find that just this year, author William P. Stodden published The Practical Effects of Time Travel: A Memoir, based on Bellamy's Looking Backward. Congratulations to Dr. Stodden on his accomplishment and success.
(2) The theme of a division in society between the low or subterranean and the high or ethereal is in The Time Machine. It is repeated in the movie Metropolis (1927), the Star Trek episode "The Cloud Minders" (1969), the Cloud City sequences of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and the recent animated short subject Smash and Grab from Pixar (2019), which is beautifully made and well worth a look--and then another after that.
(3) We might call the parable of the Grand Inquisitor a Dystopia in Time but of a conservative stripe, opposite the progressive Utopia in Time. To wit: the progressive Utopia is set in the future, which is all the Progressive cares about. The conservative Dystopia in this case is set in the past. I'm not sure of Yevgeny Zamyatin's politics, but he turned things around: We is set in the far future. Dystopian stories after that were also set in the future (although there are dystopian elements in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is set in the distant past.) The dystopia in The Iron Heel, though set in the future, near and far, is superseded by a progressive utopia of the even farther future, thus the pattern holds. Offhand, I can't think of another book that includes both a Utopia in Time and a Dystopia in Time.
Revised slightly and corrected on December 18, 2020.
Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley