Paris in the 20th Century is the long-lost literary artefact of a great sci-fi writer. I was guided to this book by a student for his coursework. As with all good literature students, he has almost read the corpus of Verne’s work. It was surprisingly hard to obtain a copy. On reading it, I could understand why. By itself, this is not a great story and I can see why it was not published. It is a little too didactic and remarkably short. However, as an an insight into a prescient literary mind, it is estimable.
At its best it establishes some neoliberalist and capitalist themes but does not really develop them. There is some truth in how societies become less aggressive thanks to money; governments have too much to lose if their economies are at stake. There is a great video of Blackadder that takes on this issue, though. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGxAYeeyoIc. Economic influences do not necessarily stop war, especially if certain forces in a society benefit from war, or at least going into one.
The First World War occured because it had to. The very nature of our economies requires constant expansion. The spurious reasons for its beginning on the scale it did – the assassination of one man – are flecks from the economic truth. Take the 2008 crash. The bottom 99% lost 5 trillion dollars. The top 1% gain 5 trillion dollars. Such expansion still continues. Man Utd grow millions more into debt each year – that debt will never clear. No one will pay it off because it is not consumer debt. It is something else. While Verne could not predict this, his dystopian outlook contrasted Hugo’s, and is especially interesting considering that he was 25 upon writing this.
Another criticism I have of the futuristic society portrayed is whether it presents a coherent culture. Do we see enough of it, and from enough points of view? The humorous pseudo-rebels, three French friends who love distinct high arts, provide only an outside perspective and therefore speak as mouthpieces for Verne. Within a somewhat fragmented, or least overly-expositionary, style, we experience some witty lines and funny people: such set-pieces almost feel like they would well on the stage rather than a novel. I enjoyed them though.
Where the book does seem to work is as a tribute to French literature. Ultimately this text stands as both a call and a warning for how literature might be lost if the worlds of art and science collide. In this 1960s Paris, literature has been replaced by the prizing of practical texts:
Dictionaries, manuals, grammars, study guides and topic notes, classical authors and the entire book trade in de Viris, Quintus-Curtius, Sallust, and Livy peacefully crumbled to dust on the shelves of the old Hachette publishing house; but introductions to mathematics, textbooks on civil engineering, mechanics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, courses in commerce, finance, industrial arts- whatever concerned the market tendencies of the day – sold by the millions of copies.
On reading this I am reminded of CP Snow (a British scientist turned literary writer) who talked to these two worlds. Verne feels that the common person will likely not want to absorb high culture. They probably would not even if only because the increasingly busy and demanding nature of modern life denies others that opportunity. A working-class life often uses language for survival and transaction, not to negotiate and speculate. Through this text, it seems that Verne is contesting of the difficulty of making a living in the arts, and the desire for high art to remain. It certainly does not seem that the common person misses the arts in this dystopian world, if they ever did.
There is a slight feminist thread in the text in the form of a love interest. She is, though, an entirely flat character, a purposeful flaw explained somewhat by industrialisation. Verne expounds the idea that to be feminine is to be the other; industrialisation and pragmatism apparently removed female traits (or at least the traits that make women attractive to men like Verne). Perkins challenges this notion this well in ‘Herland’, measuring what it is to be feminine and masculine against ideas of being in the public sphere. This was an interest idea that I would have like to see developed to a conclusion – the love interest just disappears at the end due to a deus ex-machina cold snap.
The ending itself is a set piece, remarkably melodramatic and naked in allusion. I did not find much conflict and emotion in this and read it instead as a flat sci-fi. But perhaps I am being too harsh: sci-fi necessarily requires exposition to take a concept to its conclusions. Nolan and Brooker do this with film and TV to a wonderful degree now. The sci-fi genre is developed elsewhere to a better degree by Verne. Therefore, this text does not stand well by itself. As a situation, though, it is curious, and gains an extra star if we are to rate such books.
Worth a read, and worth understanding: it does not stand by itself, but is rather better in comparison with other work.