Monday, September 24, 2018

Calling it

“The Begum's Millions” is an intriguing novel by Jules Verne, the 19th century “science fiction” writer. The plot revolves around two scientists, one French and the other German, who create utopian communities in the American wilderness. Ville-France is a virtual wonder of scientific progressivism and optimism, while the German Stahlstadt (City of Steel) is a Nazi-like dystopia devoted to world supremacy and racial purity. On one level, the novel is simply a caricature of the Franco-German conflict, with the Germans (of course!) in the role of villains, Verne himself being French. It's intriguing that the stereotypes were pretty much set in stone already in 1879, when the novel was originally published! I suppose the devastating Franco-Prussian War eight years earlier had something to do with it.

However, the story may have other dimensions, too. Verne often warned about the negative consequences of technological development, and there is some discussion whether he was ever a “progressive” himself, or simply adapted to the needs of the market. What is clear is that his early novels are more optimistic, while there is a clear tendency towards dystopia and techno-pessimism in the later ones. Sometimes, Verne's earlier heroes return in the later stories, only to be revealed as villains and mad scientists! “Begum's Millions” seem to be somewhere in between the two extremes, with technology being capable of bringing both improvement and destruction, depending on who is calling the shots.

Above all, “Begum's Millions” is one of those futuristic novels which somehow called it. The striking similarities between Verne's fictional City of Steel and the much later Nazi regime in Germany have often been pointed out. Was this the first time somebody “predicted” the totalitarian-industrial system of Nazism? Verne, an avid reader of scientific and engineering journals, also predicted WMDs. One of the weapons described in the novel is similar to an atomic bomb, while another could be compared to a neutron bomb, which kills people but doesn't destroy buildings and infrastructure!

I haven't read Verne's novel for years, and had to refresh my memory by reading Wiki's summary of the plot. An ironic detail I didn't remember is that even the enlightened Ville-France had a dark side, specifically excluding Chinese! The United States did pass the Chinese Exclusion Act just a few years after the novel was published, although this hardly counts as a “prediction”.

Well, it seems not even Jules Verne was 100% perfect…

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