Jules Verne: Poignantly Prescient


When we think of Jules Verne, we think of the genius behind 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Center of the Earth (my personal favorite of only because I read it first, at an impressionable age, and it got me on a sci-fi kick). In these stories, as well as others like Around the World in Eighty Days Verne, brilliantly prescient, wrote about flying, space and underwater travel way, way, way before any of it was actually possible.

But his ability to foretell the future, especially with regard to technology, which he viewed with a good dose of skepticism and fear, is best seen in his relatively unknown novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. First, the fascinating story behind the publication of the book...

Verne wrote the book in 1863, the year before he started publishing Journey to the Center of the Earth. He showed the manuscript to his publisher, who read it over and scribbled "Wait twenty years to write this book," in the margins. "Nobody today will believe your prophecy, nobody will care about it." Verne followed Hetzel's advice and the manuscript was dropped into a safe where it lay until 1989 (no, it's not a typo!) when it was discovered by Verne's great-grandson.

After much hype, the novel was finally published in 1994. The story is set in 1960, nearly 100 years in the future from when Verne penned it. He got so much right about the future, it's sort of scary. But the coolest part was that Paris in the 1960s would need another decade before actually catching up to Verne on some of his predictions. The book describes a city where people communicate via a worldwide telegraphic communications network (fax machines? Internet?)—where people commute to work in gasoline-powered automobiles and high-speed trains. He predicted that reading would decline, computers would rule our lives, people would live in skyscrapers and that criminals would be sent to their deaths "by electric charge." Pretty interesting, huh?

As a novel, the book is lackluster in just about every way imaginable. So don't read it looking for an amazing story/plot like with his classics. Speaking of, have a favorite Verne novel? Tell us which (and why) in the comments below...