In doing my research for my steampunk novel, I ran across a short piece by Jules Verne (1828-1905) and his son Michael, “In the Year 2889” (available at gutenberg.org). What better place to get a feel for the Victorian age of science fiction than from the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and From the Earth to the Moon?
Various scientists, inventors, and writers credit Verne for inspiring their work, including Robert Goddard (rockets), Jacques Cousteau (oceanography), Edwin Hubble (telescope), and authors J.R.R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ray Bradbury. Steampunks, of course, consider him a great-grandfather.
A single day of a newspaper magnate described the wonders of a world a thousand years in Verne’s future. Written in 1889, before most of the inventions we take for granted were commercially available—electric lighting, movies, air conditioning, automobiles, radio, television, computers—Verne gets many of his predictions correct except for the actual means of technology and the time frame: It could have been entitled “In the Year 1989.”
He describes mass media telecommunications, video telephones, and the elimination of disease by means of better hygiene, sanitized air, and scientifically-prepared food delivered by tube to one’s table. This has raised the life expectancy from 37 to 52, according to Verne, but for an average person born in 1989 life expectancy is 75. He even has a video cam in his wife’s hotel room in Paris—a bit creepy as he watches her whisper his name in her sleep.
The main technology he describes, the use of pneumatic tubes to transport people and materials, is hardly known today, except at drive-through banks. He has an automatic food delivery tube to his home, eliminating the need for a cook and servants. His valet is replaced with an automatic dresser that not only dresses him but also tubes him to his office downtown. His home has furniture and facilities built into the walls, much like Bruce Willis’s apartment in The Fifth Element or the 1960s New York World’s Fair, although much more luxurious. Also like The Fifth Element (1997), and Metropolis (1927-pre-talkie), the skies are filled with air cars.
A difference in the Victorian era sensibilities was the exuberant optimism (at least among the uppermost classes) that science would solve every problem. In Verne’s world climate is managed, ensuring good crops and comfortable weather, but his newspaper advertising scheme, using clouds as projection screens, is stymied by cloudless skies. He sets an engineer to study making clouds. One entrepreneur suggests warming the poles as recreational tourist attractions, which he decides to fund. They hadn’t thought through the effects of global warming.
The magnate awards a research grant to a scientist to prove that the three parts of the atom are actually made of yet smaller components, which once analyzed, would allow the creation of any substance. Despite the discovery of quarks in 1964, no one has been able to synthesize materials or flesh directly from them, at least not yet.
Much like the science fiction writers of the golden age, he did not foresee the individualization of technology through a distributed network, where everyone has a smartphone and a vehicle, but instead saw each technology as a centralized system. He thought that a newspaper, expanded into a main telecommunications network, could so influence world politics that even ambassadors came to see him. He didn’t consider what might happen on personal media like YouTube.
One happy thought was that he had a room full of novel writers on the payroll cranking daily serials…he didn’t really get how television would work, but thought in terms of audible speech and still pictures. The magnate took aside one of his writers to correct him about his lack of insight into others; he advised the use of hypnotism for personal insight. Freud’s first article on hypnotism was published in 1895.
I have to wonder what the next 900 years will bring, but one thing Verne definitely nailed: they still don’t have a cure for the common cold, and workaholics don’t get enough sleep.