The novel is about Julian West, a Fish out of Temporal Water, who falls asleep in the year 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000, having slept for 113 years, three months and 11 days (a palindrome, 113311). When he awakes, he finds his country has undergone a bloodless socialist revolution. He proceeds to get lectured on how everything works for a majority of the book by the condescending Dr. Leete, who apparently doesn't do anything else. These lectures comprise entire chapters and discuss things like education, jobs, shopping and such in the year 2000, and how obviously better this utopia is than backward 1887.
Oh, and there's a cheap love story, as Leete's daughter is named Edith, as was Julian's former fiancée. Instant romance, just add water.
Whether it is actually a novel is debatable, as the elements that typically make up a story are underrepresented (aside from pure chapters of exposition). With no real conflict, Looking Backward actually comes off more as a socialist treatise with plot tacked on in order to make it sell more copies.
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. 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 Dr. Leete and Julian, the latter saying the anarchists in the late 1800s were actually subsidized by the capitalists to scare people off socialism from its association with terrorist violence. This was a big issue at the time the book was written in 1888. A year prior to this, for instance, four anarchists were hanged for conspiracy to murder police with a bomb in Chicago, though it's doubtful which (if any) actually did it (four others had also been convicted-one killed himself, the rest were pardoned).
- Failed Future Forecast:
- The book correctly predicts the invention of radio, credit cards and skyscrapers but strikes out for the social changes, predicting the US and most of the West would become socialist states.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.