Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, January 12, 2015

1973: Looking Backward, from the Year 2000 (Reynolds, Mack)

Reads like a didactic socialist textbook from the future in dialogue format (3/5)

I have limited experience (self-imposed) to the works of Mack Reynolds. I first read the author’s novel Lagrange Five (1979) in 2009 but was put off by the heavy-handed socialist agenda. In 2010, I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) but, similar to Lagrange Five, I was put off by the in-your-face socialism in the last 10% of the novel. Now, this is peculiar because—when I cared enough to actually vote—I used to vote on the Socialist ballots for the presidential election (I won’t discuss politics here). I enjoy the far-reaching ideas of socialism but authors with mindsets on the progressive socialist agenda tend to heap too much on a novel to make it attractive. Rather than sounding didactic, most socialist agenda novels simply read like a manifesto.

But Mack Reynolds isn’t without accolade. His shortstory “The Martians and the Coys” (1951) in Hans Stefan Santesson’s anthology GentleInvaders (1969) is enjoyable romp unadorned with political or social dressings. Another shortstory, “Farmer” (1961) in Groff Conklin’s collection Worldsof When (1962), was less enjoyable due to its pulpy spy and sabotage, but, nevertheless, it too was missing the element of a manifesto. Seems to be that sometime in the late 1960s, socialism crept into Reynolds’ writing and planted roots in every idea he was to ever come up with. BUT… I don’t cast him from my shelves just because of his repetitive message; I have Towers of Utopia (1975) and this novel with the intriguing title of Looking Backward, from the Year 2000 (1973).

So, how did America change from the time of writing (1973) to the time of the story (2003)?

Dentistry, transportation, government, marriage, hygiene, city zoning, medical science, agriculture, recreation, perishables, news media, education, vocations, entertainment, gender, shaving, information access, space exploration, language… dear Lord can I stop now? Each chapter highlights a few of the topics just listed. The novel reads like a textbook of the future translated into dialogue. You could probably make headings and sub-headings of topics similar to a thesis, for ease of access to the information. It reads dully, unfolds dully, and ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

The premise of the story is that a multi-million dollar business mogul (Julian West) is counting the days until his inevitable death, or so his doctor tells him. His heart is beating its last few beats and will expire within months, killing him along with it. In a time when organ transplants only extend a life for a matter of days, Julian looks to the longer term for the solution in form of hibernation. Only a fringe science at the time, Julian puts his life into the doctor’s hands and plans to wake up in no more than ten years when science will be able to give him a new heart and a new chance at life. He liquidates all of his assets, says good-bye to his love, buys priceless works of art and stores them in a secluded cave for hope of making a return of his investment, and goes into hibernations… when he awakes nearly thirty years later.

He awakes in an unfamiliar room, in a tall building, in a “university city” named after him, and to an unfamiliar man. Little does he know, much of the world that he had left in the 1970s is still around after the year 2000. His initial future shock is dampened by the kind efforts of his host family, the husband of which has been tending to him since Julian’s prior doctor’s removal from service. The husband, the wife, and even the single-child daughter are all well-versed in the differences between the 1970s and 2000s; they have knowledge of statistics, turning points in history, policy that shifted trends, and intimacy with the barbaric ways of thirty years prior.

With the cornucopia of changes present in the world in which he is becoming slowly familiarized with, Julian attempts to label what he sees: “What would you call the present socio-economic system—communism?” (167). The good doctor carefully parries this labeling thrust with a didactic rebuttal:

There are elements of socialism … There are elements of collectivism and of syndicalism and perhaps technocracy. It might even be said that there are elements of anarchism … Elements too, of meritocracy. (168)

And while his host family as quick to note that their modern world is far from utopia, Julian is often awestruck by the perfection of their world, how every little qualm and irk has shifted to a wondrous curiosity and reverence. From Julian’s perspective, all wrinkles have been ironed out of the fabric of the American life, but Edith, the doctor’s daughter wisely maintains: “Utopia is the perfect society. There is no such thing. When one set of man's problems have been solved, two more take their place. Society evolves but it never reaches perfection” (111). Regardless, all of his meals are cooked to perfection, he is in top health for his age, his access to information is unlimited, he has a fresh set of clothes every day, and there are always questions and explanations to every question he can posit. Occasionally, the family defers that their modern world is actually much different than his own from decades ago:

The real basics of human existence were still the same. A baby was born to man and woman and went through childhood and adolescence in a family group, preparatory to taking his place in society as an adult. He lived in a community, received his education, found his niche in life, formed new family relationships and had children, and then eventually faced death. (220)

However, he can’t wrap his head around the way society has lost its obsession with money. He’s determined to value everything economically such as the value of wages, the price of an object of desire, and even the value of works of art. He continually returns to the subject, tedious forays into the archaic mode of yesterday in the eyes of the family. Still, Julian has in his mind that he can still become rich and powerful in a time where there are no rich and powerful people.

But why is the family hesitant to let him out of the apartment by himself? Why do they worry about who he’s seen or where he’s been? Why do they check both lengths of the hallway before leading him to their private elevator? What are they hiding? The reason is a shift in one of the topics mentioned but it had gone unspoken because they didn’t think Julian could handle the truth or the reality of his new life. Regardless of his recent awakening into a world he understands on a superficial level, he still feels compelled to be old-fashioned and to do things his way. This symptom of clutching at his past will only harm his transition to the present.

Julian West isn’t a very interesting character and the world in his future isn’t very interesting either; yet, there’s a sequel titled Equality: In the Year 2000 (1977), which I don’t think I’ll ever get around to reading.


  1. Heh, Joachim and I were just digging on Reynolds on Twitter. I don't think I've read anything truly awful by him yet, but I haven't read anything really great either---just a whole lot of average/middling fare. He had a lot (a LOT) of stories published in Astounding in the '60s and '70s, which I found odd given he was an outspoken socialist, since editor John W. Campbell's was more in the Heinlein conservative-libertarian camp. So it's not a stretch for me to imagine him being really preachy. (I despise reading polemic/preachy authors, even if it's something I'd otherwise agree with and support. Case in point, The Iron Heel.)

  2. "Middling" indeed. I just wanna slap him and yell at him to tell a damn story already. Felt like 75% of the novel was just information on how times had changed.