Paris in the Twentieth Century Paperback – 21 Oct 1997
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From the Inside Flap
THE LITERARY DISCOVERY OF THE CENTURY
In 1863 Jules Verne, famed author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days, wrote a novel that his literary agent deemed too farfetched to be published. More than one hundred years later, his great-grandson found the handwritten, never-before published manuscript in a safe. That manuscript was Paris in the Twentieth Century, an astonishingly prophetic view into the future by one of the most renowned science fiction writers of our time . . .
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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.
The society depicted here, while based on accurately predicted technology, goes to the extreme of having science and technology completely vanquish literature and the arts in a way that mercifully has not happened in reality, such that, for example, Victor Hugo is totally unheard of in the Paris of 1960.
These interesting facets aside, there is little room left for actual plot in a novel of 200 pages printed in a large and well-spaced font (with a few line drawings), and the actual story is mediocre, the characters flat and one-dimensional, though the ending is sad and poignant.
Overall, this book is really for Verne completists, or those with an interest in predictive fiction, or lost novel curiosities. Those new to Verne should definitely first read one of his famous classics.
Jules Verne wrote this short book in 1863, but his publisher rejected it as unrealistic. In many ways, what Verne wrote was prescient. He wrote about electric lights, asphalt streets and motorcars, but he went far beyond that. He foresaw the future degradation of art ("I've even heard of a certain Courbet, at one of his last exhibitions, showed himself, face to the wall, in the performance of one of the most hygienic but least elegant actions of life!"), and the deconstruction of history in mass entertainment ("...History must be raped if she is to bear a child. And she was made to bear any number, who themselves bore no resemblance to their mother!")
This book is highly polemical in nature. Verne makes quite clear his distaste for capitalism and its concomitant mindset. Also, this story offers no great insight, but merely warns. I found the story fascinating for its seeming precognition, but did not find the story particularly entertaining. Therefore, I give this book a qualified recommendation--read this book as an interesting historical document, but not as an entertaining story.
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It's not really in the Jules Verne style but it's great non the less...
A great book.
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