Prophet-Poet of Technology - with His Inspiring Fictional Predictions, Jules Verne Offered Hope for a Better World through Scientific Progress

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Laurie Morrow is the host of True North With Laurie Morrow, heard weekdays on WKDR 1390 AM, Burlington, Vermont.

Everyone dreams about finding a treasure in the attic, tucked away in the cobwebbed shadows and dust, awaiting a curious mind alert to its actual worth. Unfortunately, the old vase turns out to be one of a million peddled by a 1940s dime store. The mountain landscape you hoped was Hudson River School is just a pretty scene painted by a long-dead maiden aunt. The yellowed pile of letters tied up with ribbon isn't an archive of missives exchanged with Mark Twain or Gertrude Stein, but old rent receipts and complaints to long-dead landlords about dripping ceilings and noisy plumbing. Sometimes, however, treasures from the past do appear.

In 1863, before he became famous, Jules Verne drafted a short novel called Paris in the Twentieth Century. The publisher promptly returned it, observing, "My dear Verne, if you were a prophet, no one would believe your prophecies." Verne's descriptions of a 1960s Paris with elevated trains, automobiles, fax machines, and a tall structure topped by a light where the Eiffel Tower now stands seemed outlandish. This view of the future seemed unduly bleak, too, for Verne described a time when literature and the habit of reading were both in serious decline, and stuck his hero, the talented poet Michel Dufrenoy, in a tedious job typing on a keyboard at a bank.

Verne put the rejected manuscript in his safe and moved on to other projects. Though other works of his would be published posthumously, the manuscript for Paris seemed to have disappeared forever.

Then, in 1993, almost a century after Verne's death, his great-grandson came across the manuscript in a safe and printed this newfound treasure--another engaging adventure by Jules Verne, one of the world's most beloved authors.

Jules Verne was born in the harbor town of Nantes on February 8, 1828, the elder and more adventurous of attorney Pierre Verne's two sons. Jules was perhaps a bit too adventurous as a child: at the age of ten, he ran away from home by switching places with a cabin boy on the Coralie, a merchant ship bound for the West Indies. In a scene that could have come from one of Verne's own adventure novels, Pierre nabbed his errant son in the nick of time, discovering the boy just before the ship headed out to open sea.

Verne tried to rein in this adventurous spirit to please his father, who expected the boy to follow in his legal footsteps. So, at twenty, Verne obediently went off to study law at the Sorbonne. He got an attic room in the bohemian Latin Quarter and, thanks to a sympathetic uncle, made friends with prominent members of Parisian literary society, especially Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas (fils), the latter of whom became one of his closest friends. With Dumas' encouragement, Verne wrote plays, some of which were produced, as well as opera librettos and poetry. He also learned from Dumas a most important lesson about becoming a successful writer: that sick or well, hot or cold, one must write daily, on a regular schedule. This Verne did, despite his hard circumstances. When his Latin Quarter attic grew too cold or cramped, he moved to the warmth of the public library, where he took copious notes on his reading in science and technology. Machinery had always fascinated him; as a child, he would often sit and puzzle out how a running engine worked.

Verne passed his legal examinations, but, realizing that law would never be his passion, he wrote to his father just before graduation in 1851, explaining that he was giving up the law to be a playwright. Bitterly disappointed, Pierre cut off his dream-chasing son's allowance, plunging Verne into poverty. His friend Dumas arranged for him to get steady work at the Theatre Lyrique. But though Verne had promise as a playwright--his first play, a one-act comedy called The Broken Straws, had been produced in 1850--he soon wearied of the theatrical world. …