The novel is about Julian West, an Idle Rich young man in Boston in 1887, who becomes a Fish out of Temporal Water when he falls asleep and wakes up in the year 2000 to find that his country has undergone a bloodless socialist revolution.
He's taken into the care of Dr. Leete, the doctor who discovered and awakened him. Over the course of the rest of the book, Dr. Leete, and sometimes his daughter Edith, introduce Julian to the world of the future, and explain how things from jobs to education to shopping are now handled. This includes excursions into the Boston of the year 2000, but also entire chapters dedicated solely to the characters discussing different aspects of how the new socialist economy works.
In the midst of all this, Julian deals with feelings about his complacency in the old society and his role in the new one, as well as a budding romance with Edith.
Though it's less well-known nowadays, this book was a huge hit in the 19th century when it came out, and even inspired an organized network of "Bellamy Clubs" across the US that wanted to see the book's political ideas become reality.
None of Bellamy's other writings attained the same level of popularity as Looking Backward. However, he's also notable as the brother of Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance (and shared his brother's political views).
Available online at Project Gutenberg. A sequel, Equality was published in 1897, fleshing out Bellamy's socialist utopia further with more chapter-length lectures on various subjects; it is also available online.
- All Just a Dream: Subverted by the ending. West thinks this is what happened when he returns to 1887, but it turns out the return itself, and not the rest of the novel, was a dream.
- Author Tract: The entire book is essentially Bellamy's explanation of what he felt society should be like, with a minimal plot set around it.
- Bomb Throwing Anarchist: Discussed by Julian and Dr. Leete, with the latter saying these types were actually subsidized by the capitalists to scare people off socialism from its association with terrorist violence. (This was a big issue in the late 1800s; the book was published just two years after the infamous Haymarket affair in which eight anarchists were tried for a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration.)
- Exty Years from Publication: The round-number-by-itself variant; the year is 2000. This doubles as Fun with Palindromes, with Julian having slept for exactly 113 years, 3 months and 11 days.
- Failed Future Forecast: The book, published in 1888, predicted that by 2000 the US, Europe, and much of the world overall would be socialist. Not only did this not happen, but most socialist states collapsed in the late 80s/early 90s. However, it did accurately predict skyscrapers, credit cards and radio (the last being around the corner at the time).
- Fish out of Temporal Water: Julian West is transported from Boston 1887 to the year 2000, which has been transformed into a socialist utopia. He finds the entire society baffling, with the book revolving around him having it explained and touring a future Boston.
- Mr. Exposition: Dr. Leete. He explains to Julian West everything that's changed so he'll adjust into the future US.
- No Full Name Given: Dr. Leete's first name is never revealed.
- Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Averted. In contrast to most socialist ideologies (Marxism most particularly), Bellamy's socialism was explicitly Christian based on his interpretation of the Bible, which his fictional society reflects. Bellamy and his brother were actually both Baptist ministers. His book reflects this, since though it isn't focused on, his imagined USA in 2000 has such an ideology. At one point, the protagonist hears a sermon to this effect by a Christian minister.
- The Reveal: Edith Bartlett is the great-grandmother of Edith Leete.
- Rip Van Winkle: Julian West is put into a hypnotic trance in Boston 1887, then by a mishap he only awakens in the year 2000, with society changed beyond recognition in the meantime.
- Significant Name Overlap: Edith Leete shares her first name with Edith Bartlett, Julian's fiancée from 1887. It turns out this is no coincidence: she was named after her great-grandmother.
- Token Minority: Julian's black butler (who puts him in the hypnotic state) is the only person of color (at least who's ever identified as such). Not surprising for a book of that period perhaps.
- Token Romance: Julian has one with Edith which adds very little to the plot. She not only has the name of the fiancee he left behind, it transpires she's descended from the original Edith.
- Utopia: The future US has become one by the year 2000. Wealth inequality has been overcome, there's very little crime, and people generally live happier lives as a result of the socialist system the US adopted.
- The 'Verse: The world is further explored with the sequel, Equality, and various other authors of the time wrote spin-offs.
- What Year Is This?: Inverted. Dr. Leete asks Julian what year he fell asleep, which... startles him.
- We Will Spend Credits in the Future: The future socialist society is shown to have "credits" as a kind of basic income, where everyone gets a set amount yearly which they can spend on goods and services as they please. They are explicitly non-transferable (and thus not currency), while in emergencies a citizen's credit is increased. As the book was published in 1888, it's possibly the Trope Maker (and also coined "credit card", however this was more like a modern debit card).
- Zeerust: In 2000, information is carried through a nationwide series of pneumatic tubes. "Radiotelephone" is used to broadcast music.