PARIS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
By Jules Verne
Translated by Richard Howard
240 pp. $21
One of science fiction's founding fathers, the 19th-century French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905) not only predicted many of the technological advances that would transform life in the 20th century, but he also managed to tell some rousingly good adventure stories in the process, including "Voyage to the Center of the Earth," "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," and "Around the World in Eighty Days."
Ironically, it has taken longer than a century for one of his early efforts at novel writing to find a place in the sun. Composed in 1863, Verne's vision of "Paris in the Twentieth Century" was rejected by his publisher. The manuscript was only recently discovered by the author's great-grandson, not only some 130 years after it was penned, but more than three decades after the far-off "futuristic" year in which Verne had set its story: 1960.
Criticized as unbelievable by the editor who turned it down, Verne's novel anticipates such 20th-century innovations as subways, automobiles, skyscrapers, electric lights, calculators, e-mail, and fax machines. It is also a work of social prophesy: a dystopic vision of a hyper-efficient, streamlined world that has no memory of the past and no place for the human soul, a world where "if no one read any longer, at least everyone could read...."
The story's protagonist is an idealistic youth, Michel Dufrnoy, who has won his school's prize for Latin verse. But in 1960, such an honor is but a dubious distinction, marking the young man as master of an art deemed useless by a utilitarian society where the only poems that gain favor are odes in praise of machinery.
Calculation is the order of the day, leaving no room for imagination or sentiment. All activities - transportation, communication, manufacturing, finance, education, and entertainment - have been centralized. But, although the people of 1960 enjoy peace, prosperity, and every modern convenience, they take their technological marvels for granted and lead colorless lives driven by the pursuit of money.
Only a handful of kindred spirits share young Michael's subversive veneration for the vanished humanistic values. One is a young man who works for the great central bank but who is privately planning to be a composer.
Another is a youth whose secret passion is to become a soldier, but whose dreams of honor and glory are as useless and outdated as Michel's Latin verses: "There are no duels fought nowadays ... we either compromise or we sue.... Isn't money the enemy of the bullet? Hasn't the cotton bale replaced the cannonball?"
Verne's portrait of a world without soul, with no room for poetry, art, ardor, or imagination, strikes a chord often heard throughout 19th- and 20th-century literature. A decade earlier, Charles Dickens's "Hard Times" dramatized the growing rift between the realm of imaginative play and the cold, grim world of Victorian industrialism as typified in the memorable figures of the Utilitarian schoolmaster Gradgrind, who worships facts and statistics, and the self-made industrialist Bounderby, who cares for nothing but his own enrichment.
In our century, Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" (1932) was one of many novels depicting a scientifically controlled society with no place for individual freedom.
Certainly not a masterpiece on the level of "Hard Times" and not as intellectually provocative as "Brave New World," Verne's early novel is also less of a full-fledged adventure story than his later books. But its stark, simple story, ably translated by poet Richard Howard, is appealing for a number of reasons.
Twentieth-century readers will be impressed by both the accuracy and the inaccuracy of Verne's predictions. Yes, we do have fax machines, subways, electric light, and other amazing inventions. But far from being an age of peace, order, increasing centralization, and unbroken prosperity, as Verne imagined, the 20th century has witnessed devastating wars, genocide, revolutions, economic depression, and the breakup of empires and nations. It is sobering to note how frequently the seemingly logical developments he had every reason to expect did not, in fact, materialize.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.