Paris In The 20th Century
Reviewed by Carl Cipra
By Jules Verne
Rating: none given
About a year ago, Wayne #1 reported on a Washington Post article
recounting the discovery of an authentic, unpublished manuscript by Jules
Verne: Paris au XXe Siècle. Finally, just this year,
an English edition of this novel has been published by Random House, entitled
Paris in the 20th Century.
Verne wrote this "lost" novel in 1863, right after the success of his
first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon; but it was never published.
His publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, rejected it, citing at one point:
"No one today will believe your prophecy." (Over the next 30 or 40
years, however, his avid readers were apparently able to accept such concepts
as submarines, flying machines, gigantic ocean liners, and capsules shot
to the Moon from massive guns!)
Paris in the 20th Century takes place in 1960. It is the story
of one Michel Dufrénoy, a recent graduate of "The Academic Credit
Union." It is, in fact, an account of his less-than-successful attempts
to earn a living; and the ending is (alas) not a happy one. For,
you see, young Michel is a liberal arts major who lives in a France where
business and technology have triumphed.
Verne depicts a rather strange version of "dystopia" here. He
does not preach about the dangers of technology, as such. In fact,
throughout the novel, he proudly displays the marvels of modern applied
science and how they benefit humanity: telephones, computers, automobiles,
elevated transport systems that run on compressed air, computers, electric
lights, etc. The reader will also look in vain for dire warnings
against the horrors of pollution and overpopulation. No, Verne instead
warns against Twentieth Century society's obsession with science and technology
to the exclusion of literature and the arts. He bemoans the development
of a technological society which lacks a cultural soul.
This definitely isn't one of Verne's best works. It's not a "timeless"
work either, as it contains far too many references to obscure (to us)
French Nineteenth Century artists, thinkers, and writers to remain "fresh"
for a modern audience. (Thank you, Random House, for those explanatory
footnotes!) It is, however, a fascinating study in technological
"prediction," one of the earliest "scientific romances;" and science fiction
fans will undoubtedly enjoy reading a hitherto unknown work by one of the
Great Names of the genre. (If he'd known about this novel, I have
no doubt that Hugo Gernsbach would have loved it!)