Saturday, 8 September 2007


Steampunk an SL invention? Scroll down for the first in a short series of articles by Plot Tracer on Utopian SF Writers from the days of steam...

Remamber to visit the SLLU Factory Exhibition - in collaboration with Luna Box

Watch the stream and then enter the building for the exhibition about worker exploitation in the past and now!

After you have been to the exhibition, please go to the Tribute Garden on the island to place your tribute to the exploited.

The Tribute Garden is at the top left of the island...

PLOT TRACER Looks Backwards...

Click on slurl to go to Babbage - a "Steampunk" sim. Or alternatively click on the slurl below.


Steelhead -

Looking Backwards

“Steampunk” isn’t new. The socialist science fiction writers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries were imagining utopian, steam driven worlds (with a bit of nuclear guess work thrown in) long before SL was dreamt of…

“Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy, is a strange read and it is so for a number of reasons, not least being the fact that it was published in 1888 and is about the socialist utopia the writer envisages for the 20th century. In it he predicts credit cards, radio, television and covered pedestrian malls. Julian West, a middle class insomniac, employs the services of a hypnotist to put him to sleep at night. His manservant, Sawyer, is supposed to wake him the next morning with a special “reversal of the mesmerising process.” When he awakes, he finds he has slept over 100 years. It is the year 2000.

As well as being a critique of the social, economic and political situation of his own times, it is a romance and a science fiction fantasy. The ideas Bellamy wrote about, ie. the portrayed utopian society , influenced people such as Eugene V.Debs ( , John Dewey ( , Thorstein Veblen (, and Norman Thomas ( ).

Bellamy’s twentieth century is a time when everyone shares in a common wealth. It is a time when there are no wars, no private profit, no starvation, no class war, equality and retiral on full pension at 45 (so you can, just with that fact, see that his prediction was wide off the mark!)

His twentieth century utopia is a very nineteenth century idea of utopia. Bellamy – West in the story – explains that everyone in the twentieth century speaks in the way the educated middle classes spoke in the nineteenth century, the dialect of the working classes having been eradicated by equality and education. He also tells us that because the relationship between money and married status has been eradicated, marriage has become freer – people marry only for love rather than to keep status in society. This has in turn led to an equality of sorts between men and women – though his nineteenth century mind could only imagine an “imperium in imperio” organisation of the “weaker sex”. Women do work and are paid equally but their working hours are less, they have more frequent vacations and “careful provision is made for rest when needed,” because women are “inferior in strength to men and further disqualified industrially in special ways.” What women have, ie. an equality unimaginable in 1887, has been given to them by the men, “We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions and careers.”

Bellamy gives the moral authoritative voice to a protestant minister - modernity in the nineteenth century middle class mind was greatly effected by the individuality the church was allowing capitalist venture. The sermon is written in a way that today we find grating. The minister takes ownership for the change in society for the church (perhaps this would be a way we could sell socialism to Texas?).

Though these things are telling of the middle class Boston Bellamy is from, (he had studied law, though never practised and had become a journalist) his ideas on state capitalist organisation and equality were revolutionary enough to make the book the third biggest seller of its day after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me comes towards the end when he revisits the nineteenth century. He takes a walk around Boston, commenting on advertising, the banking system and poverty. He then goes to his fiancés house where he sits at a luxurious dinner table. Someone in the company asks him where he has been and he says,
"I have been in Golgotha," at last I answered. "I have seen
Humanity hanging on a cross! Do none of you know what sights
the sun and stars look down on in this city, that you can think
and talk of anything else? Do you not know that close to your
doors a great multitude of men and women, flesh of your flesh,
live lives that are one agony from birth to death? Listen! their
dwellings are so near that if you hush your laughter you will hear
their grievous voices, the piteous crying of the little ones that
suckle poverty, the hoarse curses of men sodden in misery turned
half-way back to brutes, the chaffering of an army of women
selling themselves for bread. With what have you stopped your
ears that you do not hear these doleful sounds? For me, I can
hear nothing else."
He looks around the table and sees the guests are shocked and he tells them he was not accusing them personally of the weaknesses of the nineteenth system. The guests, rather than seeing his point became “angry and scornful. Instead of enthusiasm, the ladies showed only aversion and dread, while the men interrupted me with shouts of reprobation and contempt. "Madman!" "Pestilent fellow!" "Fanatic!" "Enemy of society!" were some of their cries, and the one who had before taken his eyeglass to me exclaimed, "He says we are to have no more poor. Ha! ha!" He is then thrown out. I don’t know about you, but I have been to parties like that.
After this revisiting of his former time he feels shame, “For I had been a man of that former time. What had I done to help on the deliverance whereat I now presumed to rejoice? I who had lived in those cruel, insensate days, what had I done to bring then to an end?”
Perhaps, using the same dramatic devices Bellamy uses to prick his 19th century audiences consciences. I should ask myself the same question on behalf of my descendants, what was I doing while New Labour papered over the cracks while Bush plundered the world and promoted “poverty with servility?’ What was I doing when “governments were accustomed, on the slightest international misunderstanding, to seize upon the bodies of citizens and deliver them over by hundreds of thousands to death and mutilation, wasting their treasures the while like water; and all this oftenest for no imaginable profit to the victims.” Bellamy makes a lot of metaphors – though I think his metaphor of the “prodigious coach” is his best. In it he describes society as a coach, the fortunates riding in the luxury seats – the unfortunates – the masses, pulling at the harness and driver, hunger. At times the road was bumpy and some might fall from their seats, but they tried their damndest to keep them and pass them to their children. He also says that those who sat in the seats were under the illusion that they were “made of finer clay” than those pulling the coach. He said that this illusion was quick to take hold of those who managed to climb up from the ground, “before they had outgrown the marks of the rope upon their hands, began to fall under its influence. Another telling line in this metaphor is when he says that the people up top can, “enjoy the scenery at their leisure or critically discuss the merits of the straining team”, something I feel, Bellamy is a tiny bit guilty of as he later pours scorn on the working class labor (sic) movements. He believed a solution could only come if the educated classes were persuaded are willing to do something. He believed class solutions were fragmentary narrow and the nation should unite patriotically to create the ‘ultimate nation’.
Bellamy’s ideas are not fully formed in this book. He talks about a loose treaty between nations who have adopted his socialist/state capitalist system and says that it is for future generations to sort out the future ‘unification of the world as one nation. Meanwhile, however the present system works so nearly perfectly that we are quite content to leave posterity the completion of the scheme’
Bellamy went on to write another book about this ‘time’ called Equality, in which he explores his ideas further. His ideas became the basis for a new political party in the US – The National Party.
This is an interesting read – giving an insight to the ideas that were being bandied about at the time and the belief that capitalism was in a state of imminent destruction. Bellamy was writing around the time when Marx’s ideas were becoming known to the world. Actually looking backwards, perhaps if all of those people with similar goals had come together and forced change perhaps a time-traveler arriving today would not see the increase of death, destruction and broken lives that has actually happened. Perhaps arriving today she wouldn’t know about the death and destruction happening in the name of capitalism as the capitalist press and capitalist politicians conspire to keep the west ignorant, but that is another story. Perhaps if all of the people with the same goal come together in our time, a time-traveler in 100 years will find a utopia were ‘long ago oppressor and oppressed, prophet and scorner, had been dust. For generations rich and poor had been forgotten words.’
Read Bellamy’s works online –
The Parable of the Water-Tank
from the book "Equality" published in 1897
Edward Bellamy on wikipedia

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you mentioned Equality, I think its the better book, there are some editions which have a contents page which breaks down all the topical themes/chapters really well.