How the Year 2440 Was Imagined in a 1771 French Sci-Fi Novel

Many Amer­i­cans might think of Rip Van Win­kle as the first man to nod off and wake up in the dis­tant future. But as often seems to have been the case in the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies, the French got there first. Almost 50 years before Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing’s short sto­ry, Louis-Sébastien Merci­er’s utopi­an nov­el L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771) sent its sleep­ing pro­tag­o­nist six and a half cen­turies for­ward in time. Read today, as it is in the new Kings and Things video above, the book appears in rough­ly equal parts uncan­ni­ly prophet­ic and hope­less­ly root­ed in its time — set­ting the prece­dent, you could say, for much of the yet-to-be-invent­ed genre of sci­ence fic­tion.

Pub­lished in Eng­lish as Mem­oirs of the Year Two Thou­sand Five Hun­dred (of which both Thomas Jef­fer­son and George Wash­ing­ton owned copies), Mercier’s nov­el envi­sions “a world where some tech­no­log­i­cal progress has been made, but the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion nev­er hap­pened. It’s a world where an agrar­i­an soci­ety has invent­ed some­thing resem­bling holo­gram tech­nol­o­gy, where Penn­syl­va­nia is ruled by an Aztec emper­or, and drink­ing cof­fee is a crim­i­nal offense.” Its set­ting, Paris, “has been com­plete­ly reor­ga­nized. The chaot­ic medieval fab­ric has made way for grand and beau­ti­ful streets built in straight lines, sim­i­lar to what actu­al­ly hap­pened in Hauss­man­n’s ren­o­va­tion a bit under a cen­tu­ry after the book was pub­lished.”

Merci­er could­n’t have known about that ambi­tious work of urban renew­al avant la let­tre any more than he could have known about the rev­o­lu­tion that was to come in just eigh­teen years. Yet he wrote with cer­tain­ty that “the Bastille has been torn down, although not by a rev­o­lu­tion, but by a king.” Mercier’s twen­ty-fifth-cen­tu­ry France remains a monar­chy, but it has become a benev­o­lent, enlight­ened one whose cit­i­zens rejoice at the chance to pay tax beyond the amount they owe. More real­is­ti­cal­ly, if less ambi­tious­ly, the book’s unstuck-in-time hero also mar­vels at the fact that traf­fic trav­el­ing in one direc­tion uses one side of the street, and traf­fic trav­el­ing in the oth­er direc­tion uses the oth­er, hav­ing come from a time when roads were more of a free-for-all.

L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais offers the rare exam­ple of a far-future utopia with­out high tech­nol­o­gy. “If any­thing, France is more agrar­i­an than in the past,” with no inter­est even in devel­op­ing the abil­i­ty to grow cher­ries in the win­ter­time. Many of the inven­tions that would have struck Mercier’s con­tem­po­rary read­ers as fan­tas­ti­cal, such as an elab­o­rate device for repli­cat­ing the human voice, seem mun­dane today. Nev­er­the­less, it all reflects the spir­it of progress that was sweep­ing Europe in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. Merci­er was reformer enough to have his coun­try aban­don slav­ery and colo­nial­ism, but French enough to feel cer­tain that la mis­sion civil­isatrice would con­tin­ue apace, to the point of imag­in­ing that the French lan­guage would be wide­ly spo­ken in Chi­na. These days, a sci-fi nov­el­ist would sure­ly put it the oth­er way around.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Old­est Voic­es That We Can Still Hear: Hear Audio Record­ings of Ghost­ly Voic­es from the 1800s

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

In 1896, a French Car­toon­ist Pre­dict­ed Our Social­ly-Dis­tanced Zoom Hol­i­day Gath­er­ings

How French Artists in 1899 Envi­sioned What Life Would Look Like in the Year 2000

1902 French Trad­ing Cards Imag­ine “Women of the Future”

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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