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Literature / Paris in the Twentieth Century

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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 of 1960. 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As an initially unpublished (and largely unedited) work, the novel is closer to Verne's post-Protection from Editors style than the writings most readers will be familiar with,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. This attitude probably stems from Verne's early job as a stock broker, which he hated from the bottom of his heart, and which caused his lifelong contempt of Corrupt Corporate Executives and their worldview.

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 — a first sign of Hetzel's lifelong editorial pressure, as he felt them too ingrained in the novel to be edited out, and canned it indefinitely.

    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.
  • Cyberpunk: In a sense this novel technically could be considered the lost Ur-Example of cyberpunk; an angsty young punk struggles against what he sees as a soul-destroying Vice City in a Crapsack World, and its Ludd Was Right attitude mirrors the future genera perfectly.
  • 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.
  • The Magnetic Train: Verne predicted a train that was propeled by a magnetic disc inside a long tube, that was itself propeled by compressed air. It also says that is the fastest transport there is.
  • 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.
  • Modern Music: In using music as a representation of art as a whole, Verne foreshadows in essence the entire history of music in the 20th century. He predicts or explores:
    • the strangely tight and cyclic relationship between Deconstructive and reconstructive musical movements- one of the protagonist's friends, a composer, has conflicts with his professors because he does not share their deconstructive view of music as a manufactured commodity.
    • The rise of both fluff pop music and an artsy underground- what his professors encourage him to embrace, rather than high art, and where he finds acceptance of his most artistic works
    • The Punk Rock and Heavy Metal genres- perfectly mirrored in the cacophonous music gleefully embraced by the composer as a way to satisfy both his artistic urges and appeal to public tastes, as well as his demeanor. The angst-driven "you haven't heard anything yet..." competition among himself and his fellow disillusioned composers in trying to make the most bizarre and grating music possible to lampoon the proscribed "rules" of music, hits disturbingly close to the exact definition of the Industrial music movement.
    • The fall of the live classical symphonic performance as the primary source of music and the rise of the recorded music industry. This particular composer finds his own liberation in the form of an electronic device equivalent to a modern synthesizer. He no longer needs a skilled orchestra or concert hall to profit from his work; he simply composes a piece and the machine will play compositions impossible for a human orchestra to perform perfectly every time. The fact that this is both decried as taking the artistry and tradition out of the performance side of music, and celebrated as freeing the composer to explore entirely new musical territory only adds to the accuracy.
    • Experimental movements like Jazz and New Wave, the dominance of enjoyable but uninventive hit-of-the-week movements like Ragtime and Pop, and artsy and emotional movements like Blues and Alternative Rock.
    • The rise of the underground Electronic Music scene out of frustrated individuals who would have once likely have become classical symphonic composers, combining entirely novel sounds and complexity that no orchestra could ever reproduce, with the best aspects of their modern music and traditional composition to create something entirely new and beautiful.

Tropes found in this work:

  • The Alternet: Likely Ur-Example, as the book made a prediction of networked calculating machines, "picture-telegraphs" (which did exist in Real Life during the 1890s, but on smaller scale), and other forms of instant long-range communications.
  • Author Filibuster: Deserving of special mention is the chapter dedicated to describing how the composer Wagner and his "cult" of imitators with their harsh angsty new sound were clearly going to ruin music FOREVER. (Sound familiar?)
  • Author Tract: The work as a whole was clearly Verne raging against the industrial era assimilating his beloved pre-"City of Lights" Paris.
  • Black Sheep: Michel is considered useless by his whole family. To make matters worse, his family is one of the most powerful in all Paris.
  • 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.
  • Cyberpunk: On the note of Punk Punk, modern readers may note eerie similarities between the themes of this story and that genre. It can also be considered an unbuilt prototype for the modern Dystopia.
  • Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain: It's set in slushy deep winter in a sprawling (then) futuristic City Noir version of 1960's Paris.
  • A Degree in Useless: Scathingly deconstructs the attitudes that produce this trope. A society without creativity and the arts is a cold, emotionally dead world.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Michel and his relationship with Lucy.
  • Extruded Book Product: The theater has descended to this level, with teams of writers each specializing in some small aspect of writing. Good action and sex scene writers are highly prized.
  • Future Music: The music pieces have names relating to technology ("Thiloriade, Great Fantasia About Condensation Of Carbonic Acid") and sound like an unrhythmic, jumbled 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 in the 1960s cold, impersonal, and pointless.
  • Nephewism: Michel lives with his aunt, his father's sister. So he is trapped with Monsieur Boutardin who consider him a shame for his artistic qualities, like his father.
  • Neon City: Verne accurately envisioned this as the natural evolution of the City of Lights, a nickname already well-established with the early adoption of gaslamp streetlighting in the Paris of his day. Combined with some imagined refinements to his time's electric arc lamps that hit close to the mark on florescent lighting, you have another eerily precient parallel to the future cyberpunk genre that also manages to forsee Paris's prominence in the neon-loving Art Deco movement.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: Unbuilt Trope. And it's actually set in The '60s!
  • No New Fashions in the Future: Downplayed, almost to the point of aversion - 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.
  • Port Town: Paris became one with the construction of a canal, making it common to see huge ships in the middle of Paris.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: A core theme of the book, and very much gunning on the side of Romanticism.
  • Snow Means Death: The last chapters of the book take place during winter. And a lot of emphasis is put on how this is the only thing technology hasn't solved for people and that people are dying even while driving the trains. This is less a matter of a failed prediction and more a matter of Verne's cynical insight that things like giving the engineer some futuristic equivalent to his day's heating stoves would be a low priority to executives in no danger of freezing to death.
  • Steampunk: Bizarrely averted in large part, surprising given that many identify Verne as a core inspiration for the genre. Verne - as was typical for him - foresaw that steam would not be the main source of power in 1960. He bet on compressed air and electric motors instead, with the sum total falling more toward Diesel Punk than anything else.
  • True Art Is Ancient: invoked Invoked in-universe. The major characters are contemptuous at best of everything produced in the last century, whether literary, musical, or visual.
  • Zeerust: 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 some aspects of daily life are still very reminiscent of the 19th century and there is apparently no air transport (except the odd airship or two, probably). The clothing is also made of spun metal, the closest approach Verne could make to synthetic fibers before the development of polymers.