Today we’re celebrating the 194th birthday of Jules Verne—novelist, poet, playwright, and, as it turns out, seer. Often described as the “father of science fiction,” Verne accurately predicted the invention of (and many details about) the submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; his story In The Year 2889 presaged television news, imagining that instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, from interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen and scientists, learn the news of the day.”
But perhaps none of Verne’s works had such a density of accurate predictions about the future as his book Paris in the Twentieth Century, a novel about a literature student ill-accustomed to “modern” France trying to find his place in the world. Verne’s portrait of 1960s Paris features, among other things: gasoline-powered cars crowding the streets; fax machines and an Internet-y system of communication; weapons of mass destruction; electronic music and its accompanying recording industry; an educational focus on tech instead of the humanities (when the protagonist receives his literature diploma, everyone in the audience screams and laughs at him); commodified theater that serves the interests of the state; the electric chair; climate change-caused displacement; and, God forbid, career-minded, cynical, and masculine-looking women. (Awesome, Jules Verne.)
Verne wrote Paris in the Twentieth Century in 1863, but his editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, didn’t appreciate how pessimistic it was, and called it “tabloidish.” Wrote Hetzel,
I was not expecting perfection—to repeat, I knew that you were attempting the impossible—but I was hoping for something better . . . [it is] lackluster and lifeless . . . I am truly sorry to have to tell you this, but I believe that publishing this would be a disaster for your reputation . . . You are not ready to write a book like this. Wait twenty years, and then try it again.
That was the end of that; the manuscript stayed unpublished until Verne’s great-grandson discovered it in a safe in 1989, and the book was published in 1994 to critical acclaim. Jules Verne should have predicted that in the 20th century people would really like Jules Verne.