Jules Verne's 130-Year-Old Look Ahead

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By Jules Verne

Translated by Richard Howard Random House 240 pp. $21 One of science fiction's founding fathers, the 19th-century French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905) not only predicted many of the technological advances that would transform life in the 20th century, but he also managed to tell some rousingly good adventure stories in the process, including "Voyage to the Center of the Earth," "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," and "Around the World in Eighty Days." Ironically, it has taken longer than a century for one of his early efforts at novel writing to find a place in the sun. Composed in 1863, Verne's vision of "Paris in the Twentieth Century" was rejected by his publisher. The manuscript was only recently discovered by the author's great-grandson, not only some 130 years after it was penned, but more than three decades after the far-off "futuristic" year in which Verne had set its story: 1960. Criticized as unbelievable by the editor who turned it down, Verne's novel anticipates such 20th-century innovations as subways, automobiles, skyscrapers, electric lights, calculators, e-mail, and fax machines. It is also a work of social prophesy: a dystopic vision of a hyper-efficient, streamlined world that has no memory of the past and no place for the human soul, a world where "if no one read any longer, at least everyone could read...." The story's protagonist is an idealistic youth, Michel Dufrenoy, who has won his school's prize for Latin verse. But in 1960, such an honor is but a dubious distinction, marking the young man as master of an art deemed useless by a utilitarian society where the only poems that gain favor are odes in praise of machinery. Calculation is the order of the day, leaving no room for imagination or sentiment. All activities - transportation, communication, manufacturing, finance, education, and entertainment - have been centralized. But, although the people of 1960 enjoy peace, prosperity, and every modern convenience, they take their technological marvels for granted and lead colorless lives driven by the pursuit of money. Only a handful of kindred spirits share young Michael's subversive veneration for the vanished humanistic values. …


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