08 December 2016

Review: Looking Within by J. W. Roberts

Hardcover, 279 pages
Published 1971 (originally 1893)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
Looking Within: The Misleading Tendencies of "Looking Backward" Made Manifest
by J. W. Roberts

Early science fiction novels published in rejoinder to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) were basically a whole industry in and of themselves. LibraryThing records five sequels by other writers, plus a prequel, plus the more indirect rebuttals like William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) and "Mr. Dick"'s James Ingleton (1893). Looking Within is definitely a more direct reply: basically a dude learns that Looking Backward is causing the moral degeneration of the nation, then falls asleep for 35 years, when he sees a massive war. The he sleeps again and wakes up in the time of Bellamy's future utopia, but unlike Bellamy's narrator, instantly detects all of its super-obvious flaws. (Bellamy's narrator is Mr. West; this book's is Mr. North! The two even meet in the year 2000.)

Society breaks down because Mr. North is right, of course, and a new society is implemented, without all that dangerous equality stuff, which is just a slippery slope to "requir[ing] personal equality shall extend to personal appearance, dress, education, and all else" (229). And what if they let the coloreds in on this whole equality thing? Well, don't worry, regress 'em back to slavery and they'll be in their natural place again. Just make it an enlightened one this time. Looking Backward might be wrong-headed, but at least it's trying; Looking Within is pretty explicitly arguing: 'The best political system is the one that benefits me, the writer, in the present, just with some of the rough edges worn off.' The future folks explicitly readopt nineteenth-century values after everything falls apart. It's repellently short-sighted.

All that said, Roberts gets-- unlike Bellamy-- that the massive changes of the year 2000 wouldn't just spontaneously happen. Roberts depicts a massive air war in the year 1927 that is nothing but slaughter and carnage because when you fly an air-ship, no one can escape your wrath, and soon total war means that there's nothing left to fight over. 1893 was a good year for air war: this is the fourth novel published that year I can think of that depicts a bloody aerial conflict, and in every case, it's a precursor to social change.

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