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Science and Environment

Journey to the Center of Jules Verne

Edwin Stepp

A novel written by the “father of science fiction,” which lay undiscovered until 1989, reveals his fear of unchecked technological advancement.

When Jules Verne bragged to a coworker one morning in 1863 that he would soon be leaving his job in the financial markets of Paris for a “gold mine” in a brand new writing career, little did he know that he was changing the future. Surely he knew he was changing his own destiny, but there is no way he could have realized the profound effect he would have on the modern world, and especially on the late 20th century. Leaving his pursuit of capitalism in the fury of the trading floor to cash in as a science fiction writer, he would herald the dawn of a new world—one with exciting new inventions bringing adventure, leisure and a bright hope for the future of mankind.

Unlike any other author before or since, Jules Verne went on to write more than 60 novels that would influence the scientific community of the 20th century. While H.G. Wells, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley predicted gloom and doom for a society advancing too fast in the technological realm, Verne is known mainly for romanticizing the dream of a world with airplanes, helicopters, televisions, computers, automobiles, air conditioning and motion pictures. He envisioned space flight and trips to the moon, guided missiles, skyscrapers of glass and steel, global communications networks, and submarines carrying hundreds of men miles below the surface of the sea. He predicted with startling accuracy all of these inventions, and the things that would be accomplished by them, long before they became reality.

Verne’s writings greatly influenced Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, and Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon. The inventor of the bathysphere, William Beebe, would cite Verne as his primary inspiration, as would polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd.

It is amazing how much of what he wrote became reality—not just his predictions of what technologies would emerge, but the specifics of how they would be deployed. Clearly he understood science in a way that gave him remarkable foresight regarding both the feats that were possible and the elements that were necessary to accomplish them.

In his books about space travel, Verne launched his spacecraft from the central coast of Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral, and landed it just three miles from where Apollo 11 splashed down on its return from the moon in 1969. He correctly calculated the velocity required for his spaceship to escape earth’s gravitation and accurately described the effects of weightlessness on his astronauts. He also realized that the reentry of the craft would be fiery as it streaked through the earth’s atmosphere.

Some believe that many of these insights were self-fulfilling. This may very well be the case; Verne exerted considerable influence on those scientists and engineers who pioneered space flight, including Hermann Oberth and Konstantin Tsiolkovski.

Perhaps it is so with many prophecies and predictions about society and technological progress. Do they in fact provide the seeds of their own fulfillment? When people of vision imagine what mankind is capable of accomplishing, do those of succeeding generations pick up the prophet’s mantle and make it so? Jules Verne himself seemed to think so. He once said, “Whatever one man is capable of imagining, other men will prove themselves capable of realizing.”

Negative Peer Pressure

What is certain when we read the predictions is that the futurists have one thing in common: None of them ever gets it exactly right. It seems that those who dare to predict the future give us one of two extremes. Some paint pictures of bright and gleaming cities teeming with happy, healthy inhabitants whose main concern is deciding their daily leisure activity as ever smarter and more powerful machines do all the work. Others warn us of impending doom brought on by frightening social and political structures.

While Verne tended to write quite positively about technological advances, other writers in the early part of this century were not as hopeful. H.G. Wells wrote in 1920 that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” George Orwell was even bleaker in his vision: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This he wrote in 1949 in his most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Aldous Huxley foresaw in Brave New World (1932) that the earth would be devastated by a nine-year global war that would include germ warfare. As a result, he predicted, a very controlled society would evolve in which man would be able to create test-tube babies. He also wrote of a world in which the government would openly employ mind control and population control against its citizens. Not a happy picture of the future.

Many of the technological advances he envisioned are already with us in one form or another. Fortunately the full social implications have not yet occurred. Even so, Huxley would write in 1947 about his novel Brave New World: “I projected this six hundred years in the future. Today it seems quite possible that the horror may be upon us in a single century.”

Though these other writers clearly were less than optimistic about the future, scholars of Verne have generally held to the belief that he was a champion of technological advancement. Recently, however, they have learned that his private view of the future was probably much closer to that of his peers.

Missing Predictions

In 1989 Verne’s great-grandson discovered a novel that the author had completed in 1863, the same year as his prophetic pronouncement to his coworker about his literary future. This novel was titled Paris in the 20th Century. It had never been published because Verne’s publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, felt that “no one [at that time] would believe this prophecy… they simply would not be interested in it.” Ironically the novel contained Verne’s most accurate predictions about the world in our century. It was not, however, a world that was likely to appeal to the citizen of the mid-19th century. Hetzel believed that average readers at that time were so enthused with the accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution that they wanted to read of the great adventure that lay in store for the society of the day. In his opinion, people wanted optimism about the great technological advancements of the modern world.

Arthur B. Evans and Ron Miller wrote about this apparent change in Verne’s approach in an April 1997 article in Scientific American, saying, “Although his own attitude was quite different, Verne offered little resistance to Hetzel… . Most people—particularly in America—assume that Verne wrote about the wonders of technology because he was himself an optimistic scientist. But Verne’s devotion to technical detail does not reflect an innate confidence in the virtues of science. Indeed, his earliest writings—a mixture of plays, essays and short stories—were distinctly critical of science and technology. It was only the strict tutelage of his publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, that steered Verne toward the narrative recipe that would eventually make him famous: fast-paced adventure tales heavily flavored with scientific lessons and an optimistic ideology.”

Paris in the 20th Century was very accurate about technological advances, and in that respect it was exactly what Verne’s publisher would have wanted. However, the social implications that Verne described for our current century were bleak indeed. In this early novel, Verne allows the world of the late 20th century to be ruled by an oppressive, totalitarian government. The fine arts are neglected in favor of meaningless and mindless entertainment. The hero of his story is not a conqueror and discoverer of new worlds, but is instead a desperate and lonely poet. Society at large is filled with a downtrodden spirit, satirical and uncompassionate. The sense of community has been destroyed.

When we compare this novel to the actual 20th century, it is clear that, except perhaps for the despotic government, Verne was not completely wrong in his predictions in the social realm either. Certainly many people in Western society today would describe our age in similar terms. And with just slightly different outcomes in a few events of the Second World War, we might all have been (as we goose-stepped under the swastikas) marveling more at Verne’s knowledge and understanding of geopolitics than at his grasp of science and technology.

Yet Hetzel did not believe the gloomy scenario would sell well to the minds of the late 1800s. He convinced Verne that he should avoid these depressing prophecies and instead romanticize the technological world to come.

That is what he did, so for years scholars and students of Verne believed that this was how the father of science fiction viewed the future of technology. However, with the uncovering of this novel, they have been forced to reexamine how he really felt. One thing now appears to be certain: Early in his career at least, he was not optimistic.

The Real Fear

As we approach the 21st century and ponder what our world will be like, the rearview mirror provides an instructive vision. It is not just what has occurred that fascinates, but what the futurists of the last century thought our world would be like. We can reflect on what they got right and what they missed. Only then can we see that, while people have been able to predict technological achievements, often they have missed the most important aspects of the future.

No one in the 19th century foresaw that the 20th-century world would twice be engulfed by war. It was hard to imagine war that could spread across the globe with such devastating consequences. In fact, to the 19th-century mind it would have seemed an impossibility. Prior to the modern era war had always been, by comparison, a series of small skirmishes contained in a relatively local area. But the technological advances of the 20th century have made worldwide war a reality.

While technology itself became an evil to be feared in the minds of futurist writers, they often failed to identify the real problem for the future of mankind. It was not only the technology but also, and more significantly, human nature that needed to be controlled. Technology can get out of hand, but humans use it.

American financier, economist and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch warned the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 that mankind had a choice. “Behind the black portent of the new atomic age lies a hope which, seized upon with faith, can work out salvation… . Let us not deceive ourselves: we must elect world peace or world destruction.”

Technology is not what we should fear most about the future. More frightening is what mankind can do with that technology, for it has been only in this century that we have acquired the capability to eradicate human life from the planet.

Mankind has made staggering progress in the scientific realm. Yet what humanity needs most is the understanding of how to restrain its own nature. The Bible foretells a time when mankind will come to the brink of eradicating human life. “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh [life] would be saved…” (Matthew 24:21-22).

The good news, according to the Bible, is that God will intervene and stop this from happening.

That is the meaning behind one of the most hopeful promises in all of the Bible. The prophet Isaiah wrote it in the second chapter of the book bearing his name. It has been quoted by poets, philosophers, writers and leaders throughout history. A sculpture outside the United Nations building in New York reminds visitors and workers there of this future time: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

This prophecy tells us that humans will learn how to live in harmony with each other. They will learn how to use technology in a responsible fashion and in a way that will enhance world peace.

According to Verne biographer Russell Freedman, Jules Verne “wished to warn his readers that science and technology can build a better world only if men learn to cooperate and use their powers wisely.” Isaiah’s prophecy assures the promise of that “better world” for which the father of science fiction longed.