Jules Verne Accurately Predicts What the 20th Century Will Look Like in His Lost Novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863)


Sci­ence fic­tion, they say, does­n’t real­ly deal with the future; it uses the set­ting of the future as a way to deal with the present. That would explain all the stan­dard pre­pos­ter­ous tropes you reg­u­lar­ly see in the gen­re’s less grace­ful­ly aging nov­els and films: jet­packs, fly­ing cars, holo-phones, that sort of thing. So when you look into sci-fi’s back pages and do come across the occa­sion­al accu­rate or even semi-accu­rate pre­dic­tion of the future — that is, an accu­rate pre­dic­tion of our present — it real­ly jumps out at you. Many such pre­dic­tions have jumped out at read­ers from the pages of Jules Verne’s lost sec­ond nov­el, Paris in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry.

Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in 1863 but not pub­lished until found at the bot­tom of a vault in 1994, the book’s score­card of seem­ing­ly bang-on ele­ments of the then-future include the explo­sion of sub­ur­ban liv­ing and shop­ping and large-scale high­er edu­ca­tion; career women; syn­the­siz­er-dri­ven elec­tron­ic music and a record­ing indus­try to sell it; ever more advanced forms of ever crud­er enter­tain­ment; cities of ele­va­tor-equipped, auto­mat­i­cal­ly sur­veilled sky­scrap­ers elec­tri­cal­ly illu­mi­nat­ed all night long; gas-pow­ered cars, the roads they dri­ve on, and the sta­tions where they fill up; sub­ways, mag­net­i­cal­ly-pro­pelled trains, and oth­er forms of rapid tran­sit; fax machines as well as a very basic inter­net-like com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem; the elec­tric chair; and weapons of war too dan­ger­ous to use.

You may sense that the young Verne did not see the future, which takes its form in the nov­el of Paris in 1960, as a utopia. In fact, he went a lit­tle too far in using the set­ting and its sto­ry of an artis­tic soul adrift in a cul­tur­al­ly dead, progress-wor­ship­ing tech­noc­ra­cy to express his own anx­i­eties about the 19th cen­tu­ry and its rise of con­glom­er­a­tion, automa­tion, and mech­a­niza­tion — or so thought his pub­lish­er, who believed the book’s bleak pre­dic­tions, even if accu­rate, would fail to win over the com­mon read­er. “My dear Verne,” he wrote in his rejec­tion let­ter to the author, “even if you were a prophet, no one today would believe this prophe­cy… they sim­ply would not be inter­est­ed in it.”

But over 150 years lat­er, the pre­dic­tions of Paris in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry do inter­est us, or at least those of us who won­der whether we’ve hand­ed too much of our human­i­ty over to the realms of tech­nol­o­gy, finance, and enter­tain­ment. Even if Richard Bern­stein, review­ing the nov­el in The New York Times when it final­ly saw pub­li­ca­tion, found its satire “weak, inno­cent and ado­les­cent in light of what actu­al­ly hap­pened in the 20th cen­tu­ry,” it has giv­en us more than ever to talk about today. To get in on the con­ver­sa­tion, have a lis­ten to the episode of the Futil­i­ty Clos­et pod­cast on the book just above. Do you think Verne accu­rate­ly fore­saw our cur­rent con­di­tion — or does his dystopia still lie in wait?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How French Artists in 1899 Envi­sioned Life in the Year 2000: Draw­ing the Future

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today

In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Inter­net, 3D Print­ers and Trained Mon­key Ser­vants

Wal­ter Cronkite Imag­ines the Home of the 21st Cen­tu­ry … Back in 1967

The Inter­net Imag­ined in 1969

In 1900, Ladies’ Home Jour­nal Pub­lish­es 28 Pre­dic­tions for the Year 2000

Philip K. Dick Makes Off-the-Wall Pre­dic­tions for the Future: Mars Colonies, Alien Virus­es & More (1981)

Niko­la Tesla’s Pre­dic­tions for the 21st Cen­tu­ry: The Rise of Smart Phones & Wire­less, The Demise of Cof­fee, The Rule of Eugen­ics (1926/35)

In 1968, Stan­ley Kubrick Makes Pre­dic­tions for 2001: Human­i­ty Will Con­quer Old Age, Watch 3D TV & Learn Ger­man in 20 Min­utes

In 1911, Thomas Edi­son Pre­dicts What the World Will Look Like in 2011: Smart Phones, No Pover­ty, Libraries That Fit in One Book

Mark Twain Pre­dicts the Inter­net in 1898: Read His Sci-Fi Crime Sto­ry, “From The ‘Lon­don Times’ in 1904”

Future Shock: Orson Welles Nar­rates a 1972 Film About the Per­ils of Tech­no­log­i­cal Change

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Alisha says:

    I can’t help but won­der if this real­ly was writ­ten in 1863. I mean find­ing it a vault in 1994 makes it quite pos­si­ble for one to adopt a writ­ing style & present a “found unpub­lished” book. Espe­cial­ly when there is no one to from that peri­od alive to chal­lenge it.
    Some­one in the 1990’s would not have to make a long stretch to pre­dict this. It seems more like­ly under the found sce­nario.
    Hav­ing said that, if this is a book writ­ten in the 1800s it’s quite impres­sive. Indeed

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