by Jules Verne
222pp + xxvii/$21.00/December 1996
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Before he wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth or Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne wrote a short novel about Michel Dufrenoy living in Paris in the Twentieth Century. This novel was written in 1863, the same year that saw his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon published. Long believed lost, the manuscript for Paris in the Twentieth Century was discovered when Verne's great grandson opened a safe which had belonged to the French author. When Verne had first submitted the manuscript to his publisher, he was told that his vision of Paris in 1960 was too dismal and no one would believe the incredible suggestions he was making.In point of fact, several of Verne's "predictions" wound up coming true. He extrapolated fax machines, elevated trains and automobiles among other technological marvels. Perhaps even more interesting are his predictions that reading would decline and authors in the 1960s would eschew form for style, creating books which no one read, perhaps not even the author. His world of the future is, in point of fact, the raison d'etre of the novel. Paris in the Twentieth Century is sadly lacking in plot as it follows our hapless hero around a Paris which recalls to the modern reader the Londons of Orwell's 1984 or Gilliam's Brazil. Awarded a Poetry Prize from the factory-like Academic Credit Union, Dufrenoy, an artistic dreamer, must go to work at his cousin's bank, where he is ineptly set to use a computer-like device. His inability to master the keystrokes causes him to be moved to another position where he meets another dreamer, the musician Quinsonnas, who introduces Dufrenoy to a small enclave of other Bohemian dreamers who have little place in the industrial/capitalist society which rules Paris. Dufrenoy also finally has a chance meeting with his Uncle Huegenin, another dreamer, like Dufrenoy or Dufrenoy's father, the last great composer. Despite the wishes of his Uncle Stanislas Boutardin, who is looking after Dufrenoy's best interests, Dufrenoy strikes up a friendship with the uncle who is more closely akin to his own soul. Written in Verne's style, the book is interesting, although, as he often did, Verne halts his (almost non-existent) plot to unload information on his reader. Each time a character is introduced, Verne explains the character's background and relationship to Dufrenoy, whether it is Stanislas Boutardin (1 1/2 pages of description) or Dufrenoy's professor's daughter Lucy (1/2 page). Yet for all that Verne describes these characters, the most interesting and realistic is Michel Dufrenoy, himself. Dufrenoy is a stranger in his own land. Merely sixteen when he receives his Prize in Poetry from the Academic Credit Union, Dufrenoy is given a job for which is is totally unprepared. His desire to rebel against the strict regimen of the Casmodage and Co. Banking House is stifled by Paris's lack of any artistic outlet. His only way out is to allow his own inability to perform his job show itself, leaving himself without a position. Dufrenoy's understanding of Paris is nurtured by Boutardin, who desires Dufrenoy to become a part of Paris-as-it-is, and Huegenin & Quinsonnas, who try to help liberate Dufrenoy's artistic soul.
Recently, Evelyn Leeper commented that the idea of Jules Verne being eligible for a Hugo was an interesting thought. Paris in the Twentieth Century is certainly as good as several of the recent books which have won that honor. In light of last year's Hugo Winner, the Cyberpunk/Steampunk The Diamond Age, Jules Verne is the epitome of Steampunk. Looking over a list of 1996 books I own, Jules Verne's novel can definitely hold its own with some of the best.
Cinq semaines en ballon, Hetzel, 1863.
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