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Unreal Futures: Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century

Although unpublished and dating from 1863, this dystopian fiction’s scepticism about capitalism and critique of utilitarian culture still appear pertinent today

In 1989, a direct descendant of the famous 19th-century novelist Jules Verne commissioned a locksmith to force open an old family safe. Jean Jules-Verne had been obsessed with his ancestor’s safe since childhood: ‘Everyone thought it was empty, but in my imagination it was full of precious stones, gold and fabulous jewels and strange objects given to or collected by my great-grandfather.’ It didn’t, of course, contain a cache of gems and curios. But, among other literary fragments, it did contain a manuscript for an unpublished novel drafted in 1863: Paris in the Twentieth Century.

Verne had submitted this futuristic romance to his publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, shortly after the appearance of Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), his first successful book. Hetzel, who had immediately grasped the commercial potential of Verne’s scientific adventure narratives, was dismissive of Paris in the Twentieth Century. In a sharply phrased letter to his protégé, who was then in his mid-thirties, he complained that ‘in this piece, there is not a single issue concerning the real future that is properly resolved, no critique that hasn’t already been made and remade before’. Concluding that it was a ‘lacklustre and lifeless’ text, he refused to publish it on the grounds that it would be a ‘disaster for [Verne’s] reputation’.

If Verne had sent his publisher the manuscript a quarter of a century later, in 1888, there is little doubt that, in spite of its rather anaemic prose, it would have been rushed into print. In that year, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, a socialist utopia set in the year 2000. It became a blockbuster − in time, only the second novel printed in America after Uncle Tom’s Cabin to sell a million copies. And it created an unstoppable appetite for utopian fiction on both sides of the Atlantic. Hundreds of novels set in the future appeared at the fin de siècle − many of them insanely optimistic. Others, like those of HG Wells, which were formally indebted to Verne’s work, grimly pessimistic.

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From flying postmen to underwater croquet and roving restaurants, these visions of the future certainly give Archigram a run for their money - as imagined by a French cigarette company in 1899, and reproduced in Isaac Asimov’s fantastic (and rare) book Futuredays

Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in a period far more prosperous and propitious than the final 15 years of the 19th century, is mostly cynical about the future. Of course, this is precisely its appeal in the aftermath of the 20th century itself. Readers of later dystopian novelists like Zamyatin, Huxley or Orwell will appreciate Verne’s imaginative insight into the social architecture of totalitarian society.

‘I suppose you’ve heard how some American philanthropists thought up the idea of throwing their prisoners into round cells so as to deny them even the distraction of corners?’ one character, Quinsonnas, asks the protagonist, an ingenuous 16-year-old called Michel; ‘Well, my boy, this society of ours is as round as those American jails!’

In his letter to Verne about the manuscript, Hetzel had objected to the fact it was so gloomy. Today, its relentless scepticism about capitalism, or its cultural logic at least, is extremely appealing.

‘The book uses its futuristic narrative to identify the emergent dangers of a utilitarian culture that, in sanctifying financial and industrial Progress, sacrifices all human values on the altar of commercial accountancy’

Verne’s technological predictions in Paris in the Twentieth Century, are as impressive as those in the novels for which he is most famous, such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). These include gas-fuelled vehicles that travel on asphalt roads, electric streetlights and, more ominously, indeed chillingly, the electric chair. But − as ever in effective utopian or dystopian fiction − it is Verne’s critique of the 1860s, and not his prophetic account of the 1960s, the decade in which the novel is set, that proves compelling. Utopia is a diagnostic rather than a prognostic genre; and the book uses its futuristic narrative to identify the emergent dangers of a utilitarian culture that, in sanctifying financial and industrial Progress, sacrifices all human values on the altar of commercial accountancy. ‘I’m a cog, you’re a cog!’ Quinsonnas declares in a cheerfully ironic tone, ‘Let’s do our cog work and get back to the litanies of Holy Accountancy!’

‘This world is nothing more than a market,’ another sceptical citizen of Paris in 1960 announces. One of the consequences of this situation is that literature and the arts, including architecture, have fallen into a state of terminal desuetude. The metropolis itself is so monumental − thanks to the multiplication of boulevards and public buildings and the enlargement of public squares − that housing is almost an irrelevance. Meanwhile, the ‘Muse of Industry’ has been planted ‘right in the middle of the Louvre courtyard’, and ‘painting no longer exists’. Nor does literature. The great novelists of the 19th century − Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo − have been forgotten, and their books are unavailable. ‘Science, Chemistry, Mechanics had invaded the realm of poetry!’

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An everyday scene from the year 2000, again from Futuredays, in which students electronically absorb knowledge

Verne’s hero nonetheless dreams of a career as an author. ‘There were no more Bohemian poets, those erratic geniuses who seemed eternally to protest against the order of things,’ as the narrator reports; but Michel is determined. The plot of Paris in the Twentieth Century, less and less interested in the details of the dystopian administration it depicts, increasingly centres on his doomed, and finally tragic, attempt to subsist as a poet in a society systematically hostile to the arts. It culminates in a long, hopeless walk that Michel takes through the streets of the city at night, in a state of spiritual and material homelessness, which implies that Verne’s closest relation, as a 35-year-old novelist, is not a strait-laced author of science-fiction such as Bellamy or Wells, but the decadent Charles Baudelaire.

Indeed, it is telling that Paris in the Twentieth Century was produced in the same year that Baudelaire published ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863), perhaps the most influential manifesto of 19th-century bohemianism. In his unpublished dystopian fiction, in sharp contrast to the adventure narratives for which he became famous, Verne positions himself as a celebrant of art for art’s sake. Paris in the Twentieth Century is a defence of aestheticism in the face of the philistine culture of contemporary capitalism.

Paris in the Twentieth Century

Author: Jules Verne
Translator: Richard Howard
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Price: $14.00

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