I just finished reading Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century about fifteen minutes ago. This book was quite surprising, for Verne is now much more well-known for his adventure stories, like Around the World in Eighty Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
In fact, there is a reason that this book remained unknown until the 1990s… his publisher, Hetzel, ironically rejected it as being too unbelievable. Far too unbelieveable to us is this verdict, for in Verne’s Paris of 1961, we see Paris with a working Metro, with electric lights and tap water everywhere, gas automotives and spun-metal clothing, elevators and fax machines and wind power and electrocution as the main form of execution of criminals. Alright, that’s the geek-out part of the book; the rest of the book, as Julian Barnes notes in his New York Times review of the book, is less than accurate, for as he reminds us, futuristic predictions usually tell us about the time when they were penned far more than they tell us about the future.
The world of Verne’s Paris, in 1961, is a world where art and literature is dead, and science and business has ascended to the most powerful position in the world. The whole of the culture has become subservient to science, and poetry is a forgotten art. While some of (many of?) the authors Verne laments in their forgottenness do seem to be rather less than well-known now, this was also probably true of many writers a century before Verne who were not read in his time. And Verne is dead wrong when he thinks that writers like Balzac, Hugo, and Moliere might go unread in the twentieth century.
I am tempted not to dismiss what he says about the death of the arts in the public sphere (for the productions of Verne’s imagined Grande Entrep? Dramatique looks to me a lot like television, if a mite too fanciful in terms of its innner mechanics and specializations), I have to agree with Barnes that Verne fundamentally miunderstands humans when he imagines a fully depoliticized world:
But who bothers with politics now? Foreign policy? No, war is no longer possible, and diplomacy is old-fashioned! Domestics policy? Dead calm!
However, Verne is dead correct when he says of soldiers that they have merely “become mechanics” in the future. In any case, this is the first novel of Verne’s that I have read, so I am not certain how I might compare it to his more famous works, which I would like to read now. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I am interested in the kinds of utopias and dystopias that people imagine, and that this book is a literati’s dystopia more than anything, but I think it’s worth a read.
Here’s a review and another and another (hosted on the same site). And here’s a FAQ on Verne. Finally, in his Catscan columns Bruce Sterling wrote some wonderful stuff about the relationships between Verne and modern SF, as well as some interesting stuff about Verne himself: see Midnight On The Rue Jules Verne and Return to the Rue Jules Verne. If you like that, here are a bunch of resources on Sterling which I just found while seeking out those articles.