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Verne's "lost" novel offers a dystopian look at the future
on 14 March 2004
This is a most singular work of science fiction indeed. Like many of the futuristic technological marvels Jules Verne described, this novel lay in obscurity, waiting for someone to come along and discover it. That someone was Verne's great-grandson, who in 1989 found the manuscript in an old safe that was thought to be empty. While I bought this book as soon as it was published, I have only now compelled myself to read it. I could not help but wonder if Verne would want this novel published now in its current form, especially given the fact it was one of his earliest writings, so I held off in respect to the founding father of science fiction. Having now read the novel, I must say it differs significantly from the other Verne novels I have read, expressing a maudlin and tragically pessimistic vision for the future of modern society. At the same time, its defense of the classics, arts and literature, and individual freedom is quite moving.
In one of the richest ironies in the history of literature, Verne's editor rejected the manuscript of Paris in the Twentieth Century because, in his own words, "No one today will believe your prophecy." As with so many of Verne's visionary ideas, however, fiction has now become fact. Among the wild ideas included in these pages are fax machines, horse-less carriages, a subway system, computers, calculators, and other modern luxuries we take for granted now. A much longer list could be produced, but I would contend that too much of the reaction to this "lost" novel has directed itself to Verne's prophecies fulfilled. Certainly, the basis of Verne's future society is built on technological accomplishment, but Paris in the Twentieth Century is a social commentary that rivals in its unnerving implications famous dystopian novels such as George Orwell's 1984.
Verne's vision of Paris in 1960 is a troubling one indeed; the wonders of technology have worked miracles on earth, yet humanity's savior has proceeded to become its curse. It's an action-oriented society, one run with great economy and efficiency. War has been made extinct because, once war progressed to the point that machines and not men were fighting each other, the whole thing seemed ridiculous. Life itself has become scientific, and in the process the society has given up its own humanity. There is no place for an idealistic dreamer such as Michel Dufrenoy in this world where the arts and literature have been completely forgotten; popular literature now consists of books such as The Lubrication of Driveshafts. Popular music is so un-melodic that it would make even John Cage cringe. Still, young Michel does try to become a modern man, taking a job (his first of many) in his guardian's bank. He finds friends in a long-lost uncle, one of his co-workers, his former teacher, and the lovely grand-daughter of the latter. Even still, his life of quiet desperation grows more and more disheartening and threatens to make him a martyr for the forgotten cause of the arts.
Verne's warnings over the possible dangers of the technology he is famous for espousing makes for an intriguing read. Through Michel, Verne gives the reader a crash course on the history of French literature and thought as well as a primer of sorts on musical history. Some critics say the characters of this novel are ephemeral, but I found them all quite compelling, especially the main character Michel. The only real issue I have with the book is the fact that Verne basically left matters unresolved; while this is indeed effective in terms of Michel, I yearned to know the ultimate fates of the extraordinary friends he had acquired. While there are a few comical bits in this book, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a somber, very serious book warning of the possible unintended consequences of modernization. It shows Verne as a true visionary as well as a social critic and devoted lover of literature. This book is so rooted in the French ideals of Verne's time that those who, like me, are not overly familiar with the context in which Verne was writing may not appreciate and understand all of the text's nuances, but its prophetic warnings are even more timely now than they were in 1863.