The Utopian Novel has always meant big time readership for those writers capable of coming up with something unique to say about a perfect society. Of course, even better is the anti-utopian bleakness of Dystopian Novel. Overdone by half in the era of Katniss, true, but in the hands of a good writer…
Sir Thomas More—man, that guy really was a man for all season!—is credited with giving the Utopian Novel genre its name. Because, of course, he was the author of the book titled Utopia. Anyone today who picks up More’s tome and flips through it will quickly realize that his idea of the ideal society is about as appealing to the average person as that utopian ideal of fembots in the first movie version of The Stepford Wives where all these hot chicks allegedly under the control of their masters are walking around not in string bikinis like anyone would expect, but 19th century ankle-length dresses! No, if you really want to flip through a book that can authentically be described as the prototype for those distinctively 20th century American concepts of utopia, you need only track down a copy of Edward Bellamy’s 1888 work Looking Backward: 2000-1887.
Here’s a fun game to play one day when you get bored: try to track down how many books belonging to the Utopian Novel genre were bestsellers following World War II. Not coincidentally, it was right around the end of World War I that dystopian novels started becoming popular and once the horrors of genocide and other Nazi ideas of what fun it would be to test the limits of just how black the human heart can get became public knowledge, the dystopian genre kicked into high gear and the optimistic stories of humans finding a way to live together in peace and harmony became fodder for parody.
All those clockwork oranges living in the brave new world of 1984 took center stage, thus allowing Edward Bellamy’s novel to disappear just long enough for its dormancy to allow a dramatic comeback. The comeback would have to wait until the 21st century when its vision of the perfect society seemed more at ease. Why? Well, because it touches upon issues such as the right to keep and bear arms, but only if you are an active member of the Worker’s Army. So, in other words, Bellamy’s utopian vision is one actually based upon all the words contained in the Second Amendment, not just the one clause that NRA members pretend is the full extent of the legislation. Bellamy posits the notion that a perfect utopian ideal will depend to one degree or another on a well-regulated militia capable of keeping it from falling to outside interests.
That fact alone should indicate that Looking Backward: 2000-1887 is hardly a conservative polemic about what a perfect world would be. The Worker’s Army is there to protect what is, after all, one of the few common themes running throughout almost all of Utopian fiction: a system of government that rejects the selfish immaturity of capitalism while embracing the mature understanding of democratic socialism. What Bellamy offers is a collectivist concept of paradise among humans living together that reflects the socialist ideals sweeping its away across America at the time he wrote his book.
Of course, what is really fascinating is the prescience shown by Bellamy. If the author was not in contact with American economist Thorstein Veblen, he should have been because they both peered deep into America’s future and saw the rise of a capitalist system based not on production but consumption. Consumption of a conspicuous nature. Among the elements to be found in Looking Backward that have at least a tangential relationship with the world of the 21st century are the invention of debit cards, warehouse stores like Sam’s Club and CostCo, cable entertainment in the home and the medicalization of treating criminal behavior. What we take for granted today must have read like thrilling science fiction to readers of the last 19th century. No wonder Looking Backward: 2000-1887 was at one time being outsole in the novel section of American bookstores by only Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur.