Fiction set in the future reveals a great deal about the present in which it was written. That’s why it’s so interesting to read futurist literature from the past. If you’re dizzy from the back to the future allusions, you’re not alone. Which future? Which idea of the future prevails? What elements of the present point the way to what will come? And who points the way?
Reading 1984 in 2014 is a disorienting thought. As it’s been a long time since I read it (since before 1984) I think I should give it another chance, especially after reading Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward.”
In this 1887 book, a gentlemen from Boston in 1887 falls into a deep, deep trance like sleep in a bunker-like chamber in the basement of his home and wakes up in the year 2000. His hypnotic insomnia cure managed to protect him from a fire and keep in alive in a suspended state while the modern world grew up around him. His reentry into the world is basically a tour of a strange variation on a utopian future.
Yes. It’s not my kind of utopian future, with a withered form of individualism and vestiges of 19th century sexism, but it is a true vision of a future based on late 19th century ideals. It’s a socialist dream of a future without money, bankers, lawyers, class structures and most of all without poverty. Everyone does the job they are most suited to do. No one craves the possessions of others. Status is achieved through the pursuit of doing what is honorable. And without the motivations of poverty, insecurity and jealousy, there is zero crime.
It’s also a boring future.
It lacks the drive to be creative — or the drive to be exceptional except within the limited “honorable” scope of Bellamy’s heroic and helpful futurist doctor. Although I think all of us would like a place where money didn’t rule and no one spent their days in a desperate quest to simply make ends meet, it’s a stifling society, that glorifies the 19th century’s vision of how machines will save labor and there’s no need for artisans or any of the small businesses that we now see as the source of innovations and new ideas.
The scientific socialism of a managed society solves all needs and wants. Ha! In reality, the 20th century showed us that the state as father-to-all didn’t pan out as planned, but reading it today — in the 21st century — it’s revelatory. We learn so much about the late 19th century by looking at what Bellamy hoped for in an ideal future. This is making me rethink some of the old, and very old, fictional visions of the future. They show the history of the future!