Ah, Jules Verne. Many see Shelley as being the grandmother of science fiction, and then Verne as it’s father, along with H.G Wells and Hugo Gernsback – it’s not a typical nuclear family. Jules Verne was the author of such classics as ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, ’20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ and ‘Journey to the Center of The Earth’. Of which I’d have to say 20,000 Leagues is my favourite, not just because of the descriptions of the Nautilus, but because of the fascinating and enigmatic character of Captain Nemo. And the Verne story we’re looking at today is… none of those. What we’re looking is a short story published in 1889.
The reason there’s a question mark in the title is that although it was published with Jules Verne as the author, some believe that it was written by his son, Michel, with just a little bit of help from his dad. Nevertheless, Jules Verne was a renowned futurist and the reason I wanted to look at this is that it contains a lot of ‘predictions’ about what life would be like one thousand after this stories publication, in 2889.
The story follows a day in the life of a media mogul in that year, Mr. Fritz Napoleon Smith. The story begins by explaining that the people of this time live ‘continually in fairyland’, little thinking of the distant past when people roamed the muddy streets in horse drawn boxes. In the future, there are lines of aerial locomotion crossing the sky in every direction and railroads have been replaced by pneumatic tubes with speeds of a thousand miles per hours. The story then goes on to describe the technology that powers this world, with talk of ‘etheric particles’ (the ether was believed to have been the medium through which light travels, and is now known to not exist). But they also have accumulators which ‘absorb and condense the living force contained in the sun’s rays’, so solar power, basically. More than that though, they can also collect from streams and waterfalls and the wind… yes, in 1889 it was predicted that green energy would become our primary source of power. In a thousand years.
Mr Smith is the owner of The Earth Chronicle, and he originated telephonic journalism. Instead of crumbly old papers, he’s had the revolutionary idea of having the news spoken to subscribers, along ‘interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen, and scientists’. Verne seems to be describing radio and television journalism… but wait! There’s more! Each subscriber owns a ‘phonograph’ which collects the news of the day whenever they’re not in the mood to listen directly, and non-subscribers can learn the news at any of the phonographs around.
After a lot of ‘hits’ with his predictions so far, Verne does go on to say that the average lifespan has been increased to 52 years due to hygiene and basically eliminating all micro-organisms. That’s something that will pop again more famously in Wells’ War of the Worlds – it seems people in the nineteenth century new that bacteria caused diseases had the idea of just killing all of them, not yet realising that would be impossible and some bacteria is actually good for us.
Anyway, Mr Smith begins his day in New York by making a video call… sorry, ‘telephote call’ to his wife in Paris, and sees that she’s still asleep. After exiting his mechanical dresser, he does a tour of the Earth Chronicle building, meeting the hundred authors he employs to write serialised fiction, and the fifteen hundred reporters. Each reporter has a connection to a telephotic line, so the subscribers can not only hear the news, but see it. They can also apparently transmit photographs.
In the astronomical department they receive phototelegrams from Mercury, Venus, and Mars. But not Jupiter… yet. I’m actually not sure if they’re communicating with human colonists, or alien beings from those world, but I get the impression it’s meant to be the later. They also seem to have discovered a ninth planet beyond Neptune. Imagine that.
Verne then goes on describe cloud marketing. That is, actually projecting advertisements onto the clouds. Up until this point I found this future rather exciting. Now it’s suddenly a dystopia.
He then goes on to meet some ambassadors. It seems this world is basically all divided between the USA, Russia, China and… France. Whereas Britain has become a part of the United States (which now has a hundred stars on its flag), France has not only held on to its empire, but conquered all of Africa. Because French imperialism is good imperialism. The good news though is that Australia is still independent.
Then he makes another call to his wife, meets some more people (including a chemist who believes he has mastered the elements to manufacture any material such stone, wood, metal… perhaps even flesh and blood. Eww). The story ends with a failed attempt to revive a scientist who had been conducting an experiment in suspended animation, and Mr Smith remarking ‘here is a method that needs improvement’.
Now, this story doesn’t have much plot to it. It’s really just a vision of the future as imagined in 1889, and as you’ll have seen a great deal of it has already come to pass. There were also a few misses in there, but that’s to be expected. Overall Verne’s reputation as being a prophet of future technology remains. He always denied being a prophet however – he just did a lot of research, reading the scientific and engineering journals of the day and extrapolating from them. In truth I feel a lot of science fiction prophecies are self-fulfilling… someone is inspired by a story they read when they were young and then goes on to become a scientist or engineer and make that thing they read about happen.
Nevertheless, this story was a fascinating read. It can be found in many collections of Jules Verne’s works that you can find in any good ebook store.