This is the first book I have read by early science-fiction author Jules Verne, and it’s a fairly odd book to first be inducted into Verne’s writings. The first aspect of the book that deserves mention is it’s publication history. The book was originally written in 1863, just after Verne penned his original novel “Five Weeks in a Balloon”, but a few years before Verne wrote his science-fiction works. However, Verne’s publisher did not want to publish the book, as the publisher believed that the book was not an accurate enough depiction of the future. The manuscript was rediscovered, and published, in 1994.
It’s always odd reading older SF books like this – they were written in the past to make predictions about the future, but the future predicted is still in your past. I always feel the need to try and compare the world depicted in the book to my knowledge of what the world was like at that time, constantly asking myself whether this invention, and this depicted society occurred in this manner or not. That said, my lack of detailed knowledge about Parisian life in the 1960’s takes this away from me. The prelude of the book claims that the predictions are startlingly accurate, and my superficial knowledge of the world at the time seems to support this assertion – there are electric lights, facsimiles, an underground rail system, gas-powered automobiles, and other inventions that I am certain were not invented in the 1860’s, but not knowing a lot about France or Paris, I will have to defer to someone else’s knowledge on the makeup of the city, it’s development and history.
In spite of the prelude of the book discussing the accuracy of the predictions, I think that the most accurate prediction by far is the basis of the plot itself. “Paris in the Twentieth Century” is the story of Michel Jérome, a young man living in 1960’s France, which has become a centre of industry and development, and is a paragon of capitalism. All efforts and industry are directed towards earning money, and the world has no place for classical writing, far less for a man like Michel, whom wishes to produce his own original works of literature. For those whom wish to work in the arts, society demands deriviative plays, poems and stories, produced solely to make money. It’s quite a pertinent story – a genuine case could be made that a similar situation occurs today, with writers for a myriad of mediums and genres paid to produce deriviative and unchallenging works. Although I am only a consumer of writing, I sympathise with Michel in his plight.
For anyone who decides to attempt this book, it needs to be said that there are a lot of references to France that are going to go over the heads of those whom have not made an effort in studying the French culture, particularly it’s literature prior to the 20th century - a group in which I include myself. However, unlike some science-fiction novels that I have read that reference classic authors in some contrived manner in order to look more sophisticated, in this case, the references are there because they are necessary to depict the characters themselves, to show that they understand and appreciate their French literature, and does not seem like simple name-dropping. The characters appreciation of the authors and their works provides a contrast to the dreary poems that “celebrate the wonders of industry” that feature in the novel. In any case, the references are not overbearing, and the book can be read and appreciated even with my meagre (read as none) knowledge of French literature.
In short, although I would have gotten more out of “Paris in the Twentieth Century” should I have more knowledge of France, it’s culture and history, the novel is written in such a way that a lack of knowledge in this regard does not detract too greatly from the story, and I cannot ignore the relevance of a story where a man wishing to write original works in a society that fails to reward those that do so. 4.5/5.