The Accuracy of Edward Bellamy: Predicting the Future with Science Fiction
There's a fascinating little book you've probably never heard of called Looking Backward: 2000-1887, but a little over a hundred years ago it was wildly popular. In fact, at the time, it was the third best-selling novel, and it did something few other works of fiction dared to do: it predicted the future.
Back when science fiction didn't technically exist and Jules Verne's fantastical proto-sci-fi was relatively new, Edward Bellamy wrote this novel that not only qualifies—however unintentionally—as science fiction, but made some bold prophecies about how life would work in the year 2000.
Predicting our future is a longstanding tradition of science fiction, but those predictions rarely turn out to be true. So why bother? What's the point of writing about a future that will never happen?
Now that we're comfortably beyond the year 2000, it's worth looking backward once again to see how much came true. Perhaps then the intent of this book, and science fiction in general, will become clear.
First, a quick synopsis: a dandy in late-19th century Boston gets hypnotized to help him sleep (a professor of animal magnetism, whatever that is, convinces him it's the only way to combat insomnia). It works a little too well, and this man wakes up to find he slept 113 years. Naturally, the new tenants of the house, one Dr. Leete and his family, are quite surprised to find this anachronism hibernating in their basement.
Through a series of conversations, Dr. Leete explains how humanity has completely redesigned its economy and society so there are no poor, people only have to work a few hours a day in a job they love, and they all retire at 45 to a life of leisure and creative pursuit.
It's one of those books, and it doesn't take long to realize that Bellamy didn't get much right.
In fact, the entire thing falls apart with the benefit of hindsight. History has not been kind to the ideas espoused in Looking Backward. Basically, it reads as a Marxist manifesto, chock-full of long soliloquies about communist ideals, or perhaps just over-the-top socialism. Either way, to a modern ear, it sounds woefully naive and even dangerous. The very term "industrial army" as a way to describe the populace is enough to resurrect Cold War-era fears.
To be fair, this was written at a time when these ideas were untested and lacked the emotional and historical baggage that they now carry. And there are a few interesting predictions about technology in society, even though technology is a secondary consideration in this book.
One of the things Bellamy seemed to predict with the most accuracy is Amazon. Yep, the online store. Bellamy envisioned a meatspace version of Amazon where every product is on display; people choose what they want, and it's delivered to their house within a day (via a set of tubes, which is a particularly delightful detail in light of the joke about the Internet being a series of tubes). He also describes the use of "credit cards," which function more like debit cards, but are nevertheless a fairly accurate representation of how we do business in this era.
With a little bit of stretching, it's even possible to see Bellamy's prediction of an on-demand music service piped directly to homes via telephone wires as a fairly decent forecast of services such as Pandora or Spotify. At the very least, it's a foreshadowing of radio stations.
Regardless, the main prediction, the entire point of the novel, is so painfully inaccurate, that it could easily make the book feel like a bit of a waste.
But it's not.
Looking Backward is a perfect example of the real reason behind science fiction and futuristic predictions, in general. It's not meant to be a roadmap, but an inspiration to think differently about the present. Take, for instance, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. It's often credited with predicting the Internet, social media, multiplayer video games, and even iPads with spooky accuracy. Despite that, Card was less interested in predicting the future than he was in making us think about our current place in the universe and how we treat people who aren't like us.
Setting aside all the wrong-headedness and wildly unfounded optimism in Looking Backward, it's still worth reading for this very reason. The hope for humanity's future, the belief that things can improve, are more important than any of the actual details that history has since called into question.
For example, the following quote still rings true. Speaking about the old viewpoint of commerce and business, Dr. Leete says: "It was the sincere belief ... that the only stable elements of human nature, on which a social system could be safely founded, were its worst propensities. They had been taught and believed that greed and self-seeking were all that held mankind together..."
Bellamy didn't know that the economy in his own book could also bring out some awfully bad "propensities" in mankind, but that does nothing to blunt the criticism of our own system. That's the real power of "predictive" science fiction: describing how things can change—for better or worse—and making people think about how that relates to their current life. In that way, it remains surprisingly relevant to our time.
For every prediction that congress will only need to meet once every five years (Ha!), there is a surprisingly progressive take on women in the workforce. For every prediction that workers will construct covered walkways in the streets of Boston whenever it rains ("...it would be considered an extraordinary imbecility to permit the weather to have any effect on the social movements of the people."), there is a painfully accurate parable about the human condition. For every troubling claim that there is a genetic predisposition to crime, there is an emphasis on education and satisfying employment for every person.
Behind the juvenile enthusiasm about radical economic restructuring, the real message is that humanity can improve, that we can all be more compassionate.
It's a hilarious, cloying, overly optimistic future, one that never came to pass, and it gets so many things wrong. Yet Looking Backward is still worth a read. The details don't work, but the underlying sentiment may yet come true. That's one prediction that we should all be working to fulfill.
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