PARIS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
By Jules Verne
(Sydney Morning Herald April 1, 1998)
“Prophecy,” wrote George Eliot, “is the most gratuitous form of error.” However true, this has not deterred many great minds from trying. From Isaiah to Aldous Huxley, from Nostradamus to Stapledon, predicting the future has remained an irresistible folly.
Jules Verne sets his book not in a faraway place (like More’s Utopia or Butler’s Erehwon) but in a tangible and looming future that derives from the present in an inevitable chain of being. Verne sent the manuscript of this curious gem in 1863 to his editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who promptly rejected it. Although Verne’s first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, had just been published to enormous success, Hetzel thought Paris in the Twentieth Century too fantastic, and wrote to Verne: “No-one today will believe your prophecy.”
In the following decades, Verne would become one of the most successful authors France has ever produced and one of the founders of modern science fiction. Verne’s visionary and compulsively readable adventures deal with voyages to the moon (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865), the centre of the Earth (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1864) and the North Pole, as well as anticipating the invention of the submarine (20,000 leagues Under the Sea, 1870), the helicopter and artificial satellites. Verne’s chief obsession was with travel and exploration, and throughout his life he would remain a committed sailor, using boats as mobile studios where a lot of his writing was done. Verne was a famous and wealthy man by the time he died in 1905. But the manuscript of perhaps one of his most ground-breaking works would remain undiscovered until 1989, when the sale of the family home prompted Verne’s grandson to dispense with a large safe that had remained untouched for decades. In a narrative twist worthy of one of his adventures, the safe was opened with a blowtorch to reveal a dusty manuscript wrapped in linen. The text turned out to be this long-lost and hitherto unpublished science fiction work by Verne.
Set in 1960, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a vision of the world 100 years from Verne’s time. Verne introduces us to his future through long expository paragraphs. We are told that all cultural and artistic developments have abruptly halted around the 1900s, and the pursuit of scientific research absorbs most of society’s resources. Although the number of published books is high, very few people read any more, and knowledge is imparted by undisclosed “mechanical means”. Culture and education have been monopolised by the Academic Credit Union, a demagogic institution which frowns upon any works of literature that are not in “perfect harmony” with “the age’s industrial aims”. As a consequence, modem works of poetry have titles like Poetic Parallelogram, Meditations on Oxygen and Decarbonated Odes and books like A Practical Treatise for the Lubrication of Driveshafts and Monograph on Cancer of the Brain are in high demand. Painting and sculpture are dead, and cacophony and disharmony rule over music. The main drive of this society is to make money, and whoever does not surrender to this economic imperative is left to drop by the side. Verne’s description of future Paris would strike any modern reader as prescient and plausible: a monumental metropolis of wide avenues, galleries, viaducts, “boulevards lit as brightly as by the sun” and “stores as sumptuous as palaces”.
Technology is omnipresent and the main engine of societal change. There are horseless carriages driven by hydrogen engines and driver-less trains powered by magnetic fields and compressed air, while, not so far from where the Eiffel Tower went up in 1899, there looms a giant electric lighthouse. Parisians in the 20th century have fax machines (’photographic telegraphy permitted transmission of the facsimile of any form of writing or illustration”) but no television sets or telephones. Certain garments of clothing are made of finely woven metal, yet the fashion and sexual mores of Verne’s 1960s remain decidedly Victorian. A vast “telegraph network” covers the Earth, making possible instant communication and transactions over great distances. Verne also indulges in some absurdist robotics. There is, for example, a multipurpose piano that, at the push of a button, doubles up as a dining table-a contraption that would have been the envy of any self respecting Dadaist. Also, we are shown an Electric Concert where “200 pianos wired together by means of an electric current could be played by the hands of a single artist”. Somewhat less amusingly, nearly a quarter of a century before the implementation of the electric chair, Verne envisions prisoners condemned to death “executed by electric charge”, in what he describes as a “better imitation of divine vengeance”.
The central character of the novel is Michel Dufrenoy, a young romantic poet struggling to survive in this society ruled by the twin demons of Finance and Machinery. Certain autobiographical elements can be read into this character, who may embody the struggles of young Jules Verne to balance a monotonous full-time job with his ambitious literary aspirations. Pressured by his father to study law, young Jules would buy into a financial company and work as a broker in the Stock Exchange, writing poems, stories and pieces for the stage in his spare time, and also helping with the management of a theatre established by his friend Alexander Dumas. In Paris, Michel Dufrenoy is employed in a bank, where he is assigned to Machine Number Four and thrown into a scenario vaguely reminiscent of Franz Kafka (who was still half a century away). Armies of copyists and operators rush about typing on “strangely shaped” proto-computers and writing on mammoth ornate ledgers. While employed in the bank, Michel causes an accident and is fired. Later, he is hired by a State-owned theatre company. Here the mass-production of vacuous entertainment has been thoroughly bureaucratized, and the writing production-line includes a Department of Puns, a Drama and a Comedy division, a clerk in charge of rhyming couplets and another who rules on preposterous phrases. Strangely, but not surprisingly, tragedy has been banished from the list. Unable to adapt, Michel is demoted from Drama to Vaudeville. Deciding that starvation is better than this artistic humiliation, he resigns.
The closing chapters follow Michel’s descent into poverty. However, do not expect gritty social realism from Verne, for the poverty remains largely invisible, and the polished surfaces of Paris are impervious to the sight of this society’s shortcomings. Verne is thoughtful enough to invent a “coal bread” that is cheaply produced to feed the poor.
Thus, it is Michel’s (and the novel’s) ironic lot to become a tragedy. For a man who is often regarded as a singer of the praises of technology, Verne presents a rather grim picture of its effects. Also, the fact that he portrays the obsession with technological improvement as inextricably associated with the drive for profit is noteworthy. Nonetheless, Verne cannot decide whether to be fascinated or horrified by the glittering edges of this wondrous age. His own position is a conservative one, and would have seemed so even to his contemporaries. During the narrative, Verne uses his characters as mouthpieces extolling the virtues of classical harmony in music, bravery in war and the “good old days” (circa 1863). Like all prophecies, Verne’s novel tells us more about the time it was written than about the time it supposedly predicts. Modernity was pounding at the threshold of Verne’s age, and the Industrial Revolution augured a time of changes, of great wonders and uncertainties. In this context, this novel is a revealing document, an ironic and admonitory comment on the society of its day. Reality, as if any further confirmation was needed, will always be much stranger than fiction. Verne’s vision errs wonderfully, and is darkly accurate in many respects. However, nothing can palliate the impression that we are reading this one hundred and fifty years too late.