Paris in the Twentieth Century: Jules Verne, The Lost Novel by Jules Verne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
By now this novel's history is well-known: originally written by Jules Verne as a followup to his first bestseller, Five Weeks in a Balloon, it was rejected by his publisher, who had been hoping for another rollicking adventure story like its predecessor, rather than the rather dour dystopian story Verne turned in. Verne evidently took this rejection to heart and spent most of the rest of his career writing the slick, fast-paced, somewhat formulaic, if often highly entertaining, proto-SF novels with which his name has become synonymous, while this book was forgotten until the manuscript was found in a family safe where it had been gathering dust for 130 years.
On the whole it's more interesting as an artifact than a novel: the story, about a young man named Michel Dufrenoy, a sort of hippie avant la lettre who dreams of being a poet in an age (the far-flung future of 1960) that only cares about commerce and technology, is not much more than an armature on which Verne hangs his often prescient depiction of 20th century Paris (what he gets right and what he gets wrong are often amusingly at odds -- he predicts a sort of version of the internet, yet his characters still use quill pens); as such this belongs firmly in the "Grand Tour" tradition of SF, alongside Stanley G. Weinbaum's A Martian Odyssey or Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, where the world in which the story takes place is as much the point as the story itself.
Nevertheless, there's still an interesting autobiographical aspect to this story: Verne, the son of a highly conservative provincial lawyer, was something of a bohemian in his youth. He worked for a while as a sort of gofer and hanger-on to Alexandre Dumas pere and tried his hand -- unsuccessfully -- at playwriting before turning to fiction, so it's hard not to see at least a little of him in Michel Dufrenoy, and to wonder if the rather more ambivalent attitude toward technology depicted here was something Verne really felt before he embarking on a career celebrating its wonders.
View all my reviews