Paris in the Twentieth Century
was one of the first science-fiction novels written by Jules Verne
, but the last to be published — in 1994
, after lying forgotten in a safe for over a hundred and twenty-five years.
While a good read, the novel isn't Verne's best. What makes it very
interesting, however, is the accuracy of its many predictions about the future. Verne wrote the novel in 1863, and it is set in the far-off futuristic world
. Verne did a remarkably good job of predicting the world one hundred years in his future. Amusingly, one of the reasons his novel was not published for so long is that publishers originally felt his predictions to be too unrealistic.
As an initially unpublished work, the novel is closer to Verne's post-Protection from Editors
style than the writings most readers will be familiar with, particularly in regards to its cynicism
. Verne imagines the Paris of 1960 as a bleak dystopia where art and creativity are stifled, and cold-hearted pragmatism, logic
, commerce, and industrial development are the only things that anyone cares about. Michel Dufrénoy, the protagonist, is one of the last students of the humanities graduating from his university, a cause for shame for his family, and endless misery and failure for him throughout the story as he struggles to survive alone in a cold, mechanized world without losing his identity. (Today in the real world, people would likely tell him to prepare for a lifetime of serving fries...) The depressing tone and message of the novel is the other
, and likely bigger, reason why it was initially denied publication and remained forgotten for so long.
Notable predictions of Paris in the Twentieth Century:
- Automobiles: About twenty years before the modern carnote in its most rudimentary form was invented, Verne predicted not only the widespread use of cars, but also infrastructures built around them. His Paris of 1960 was filled with automobiles powered by compressed air (cars that run on compressed air actually exist today, though they aren't very efficient). "Refuelling" stations for compressed air were placed around the city, and the monopolistic company supplying the compression was very rich, powerful, and morally dubious. Make of that, and the description of their appearance matching the styling of the typical American car of 1960 far closer than that of the typical French one, what you will.
- Computers: Or sophisticated electro-mechanical calculators, at any rate. These are widely used by businesses.
- The electric chair: Used to underscore the point of how de-humanizing and cruel technology had become.
- The Internet and the telecommunications revolution: The novel describes calculating machines that can send information to each other remotely to help companies conduct business over great distances. Fax machines (as "picture-telegraphs") are also described, and in general it's made clear that instant long-range communication is very important to the business of Verne's 1960s Paris.
- Modern architecture: The Paris of Verne's 1960 was a skyscraper-filled, modern city. In real life, very few skyscrapers would be built in the city proper (though its suburbs would be more than happy to take up the slack), but as shown by London, Frankfurt and just about every major American city, Paris would be the exception to prove the rule — the only reason why more skyscrapers weren't built in Paris was because they were outright banned after the construction of the butt-ugly Tour Montparnasse. He even predicted a geometric, modern centrepiece built for the Louvre's courtyard. (Granted, in Verne's novel it's more of a statue dedicated to industry, science, and the like.)
- Modern security systems: In one scene, the protagonist accidentally sets off an automatic security system in a bank.
- Warfare: Less accurately, Verne predicted that the application of overwhelming technology to warfare would inevitably lead to world peace. Unfortunately this clearly hasn't come true... But on the other hand, the basic idea of Mutually Assured Destruction seems similar. And Verne's prediction that technology would make war impersonal, with soldiers killing remotely by operating the controls of machines, is more accurate now than ever.
- The importance of the Lowest Common Denominator, Theiss Titillation Theory, and related tropes to modern entertainment: Of course, even Shakespeare had plenty of sex and lewdness in his works, but Verne made some striking Take That predictions about modern entertainment nonetheless. He envisioned crude stage plays that would replace "real art", and in which a major point would be lowering the curtain at the last possible moment in scenes with sex and nudity.
- Hippies: Yes, hippies. The protagonist is a Love Freak and self-proclaimed poet who wears his hair long and resents working in the corporate world, though he's not as drugged-out or filthy as the type usually is. To be precise, he's kind of a dandy with similarities to a 20th century hippie. Of course, the fact that the novel is actually set in the 1960s is amusing as well.
Tropes found in this work:
- A Degree in Useless: Scathingly deconstructs the attitudes that produce this trope.
- Born in the Wrong Century: Dufrénoy and his friends, though many of the latter are older and have learned to fit in for pragmatic reasons.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive / Mega Corp.: In the 20th century, they run the world. Yet another accurate prediction!
- Dogged Nice Guy: Michel and his relationship with Lucy.
- Future Music: The music pieces have names relating to technology ("Thiloriade, Great Fantasia About Condensation Of Carbonic Acid") and sound like unrhythmic, jubled mess of noises.
- Lonely Together: There are few people left in Paris who care about art, ideals, or anything else that isn't practical and pragmatic, so they are very happy when they encounter each other by chance.
- Ludd Was Right: Technology makes life cold, impersonal, and pointless.
- New-Age Retro Hippie: Unbuilt Trope. And it's actually set in The Sixties!
- No New Fashions in the Future: Somewhat subverted - particularly nicely when the characters decry the far more utilitarian clothing of modern French women - but most fashions still seem to be based on 19th century clothing and its principles.
- Old Shame: While Verne actually liked the novel and defended it, his first real publisher, Hetzel, was fond of criticizing it. Verne later gave up and the novel became forgotten and unpublished until freaking 1994. Also, the novel is kind of an Odd One Out compared to the rest of his early writings : Thematically, it's far more evocative of his later novels (cca from the 1880s onward), which were more pesimistic about the effects of technological advancement on humanity and had more Humans Are Bastards undertones. Mind you, Paris was only his second sci-fi or adventure novel, and he went on to write many exciting and genuinely optimistic novels until he suffered a gradual Creator Breakdown in the 1870s and 1880s, which lead to his works becoming far Darker and Edgier. It's as if this novel was teleported from that later phase of his writing carreer, instead of the more cheerful early one.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: a core theme of the book, and very much gunning on the side of Romanticism.
- Science Is Bad: see "Ludd Was Right" above.
- Steam Punk: Arguably... averted. Verne - as was typical for him - foresaw that steam would not be the main source of power in 1960. He bet on compressed air, instead.
- Zeerust / Tech Marches On: Though calculating machines take the place of computers, records are still kept in books. In this case, a colossal book apparently four meters tall, whose pages are turned with machinery. Also, fashions and and some aspects of daily life are still very reminescent of the 19th century and there is apparently no air transport (except the odd airship or two, probably).