Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Jules Verne & Michel Verne's "In the Year 2889" (short story, science fiction): Beware! Future telling can come true!

A couple of pages into it, & my reaction was - why did Hartwell classify it as hard sf? I still won't classify it as such. It's what is sometimes called "future history" - without much attention to detail of each specific item of technology in this magical future, & yet prophetic.

And it's a very amusing story. The story is set a 1000 years after its publication date; but many of its predictions are already common place just a little over 100 years since its publication. Though often in ways different from they way author thought. The story also includes several themes now popular in science fiction.

Full text of the story is available online.

Story summary.

To tell us how this future looks like, story selects a random date - "September 25th of this present year 2889". It's a diary describing details of the day of one Fritz Napoleon Smith, "editor of the Earth Chronicle" - an influential futuristic newspaper. And one with wealth that "reaches the almost unimaginable figure of $10,000,000,000"!

I collect some quotes in the section below that highlight the elements I found interesting in the story.


Quotes are generally in order they appear in the story. Except occasional ones where I've merged a later quote with a similar earlier one.
  1. "modern towns, with populations amounting sometimes to 10,000,000 souls; their streets 300 feet wide, their houses 1000 feet in height; with a temperature the same in all seasons; with their lines of aerial locomotion crossing the sky in every direction".

    10 million already sounds rather low for big cities. But we still don't have sky cars or general weather control. Story doesn't talk of air conditioning inside your home, but outside as well!

    A bit more on his conception of sky car: "air-coach ... waiting for him at a window." And its driver is called "coachman".
  2. "pneumatic tubes through which today one travels at the rate of 1000 miles an hour".

    We actually have aircrafts at this speed, though surface transport is still far behind.
  3. "so early as ten centuries ago it was known that the differences between the several chemical and physical forces depend on the mode of vibration of the etheric particles, which is for each specifically different. When at last the kinship of all these forces was discovered, it is simply astounding that 500 years should still have to elapse before men could analyze and describe the several modes of vibration that constitute these differences. Above all, it is singular that the mode of reproducing these forces directly from one another, and of reproducing one without the others, should have remained undiscovered till less than a hundred years ago"

    Discussion of a research project:
    "Once the elementary bodies ... were held to be sixty-two in number; a hundred years ago they were reduced to ten; now only three remain irresolvable, as you are aware."
    "these also I will show to be composite."
    "The practical outcome? Why, that we shall be able to produce easily all bodies whatever--stone, wood, metal, fibers--"
    "And flesh and blood? ... Do you pretend that you expect to manufacture a human being out and out?"
    "Why not?"
  4. "those wonderful instruments the new accumulators. Some of these absorb and condense the living force contained in the sun's rays; others, the electricity stored in our globe; others again, the energy coming from whatever source, as a waterfall, a stream, the winds, etc... the transformer, a more wonderful contrivance still, which takes the living force from the accumulator, and, on the simple pressure of a button, gives it back to space in whatever form may be desired, whether as heat, light, electricity, or mechanical force, after having first obtained from it the work required...
    As for their applications, they are numberless. Mitigating the rigors of winter, by giving back to the atmosphere the surplus heat stored up during the summer, they have revolutionized agriculture. By supplying motive power for aerial navigation, ... the continuous production of electricity without batteries or dynamos, of light without combustion or incandescence, and for an unfailing supply of mechanical energy for all the needs of industry."
  5. "Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers... each subscriber owns a phonograph, and to this instrument he leaves the task of gathering the news whenever he happens not to be in a mood to listen directly himself. As for purchasers of single copies, they can at a very trifling cost learn all that is in the paper of the day at any of the innumerable phonographs set up nearly everywhere."

    The rub is - it's not computer supplying this information from other end. It's actual people - in call centers.
  6. "thanks to the progress of hygiene, which, abating all the old sources of unhealthfulness, has lifted the mean of human life from 37 up to 52 years"!
  7. Description of a video conferencing system: "The first thing that Mr. Smith does is to connect his phonotelephote... The transmission of speech is an old story; the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires is a thing but of yesterday."
  8. Protagonist criticizing the work of a novelist: "Your story is not a picture of life; it lacks the elements of truth. And why? Simply because you run straight on to the end; because you do not analyze. Your heroes do this thing or that from this or that motive, which you assign without ever a thought of dissecting their mental and moral natures... In real life every act is the resultant of a hundred thoughts that come and go, and these you must study, each by itself, if you would create a living character."
  9. "Besides his telephone, each reporter ... has in front of him a set of commutators, which enable him to communicate with any desired telephotic line. Thus the subscribers not only hear the news but see the occurrences."
  10. Newspaper subscribers have access to some kind of a filter: "the hearers are free to listen only to what specially concerns them. They may at pleasure give attention to one editor and refuse it to another."
  11. "Telescopes? O no, the trouble here is about inhabitants!"
    "then, the moon is positively uninhabited?"
    "At least ... on the face which she presents to us. As for the opposite side, who knows?"
    "Ah, the opposite side! You think, then... Why, turn the moon about-face."
    "Ah, there's something in that," cried the two men at once. And indeed, so confident was their air, they seemed to have no doubt as to the possibility of success in such an undertaking.

    Wow! Cannot conceive of going to moon, but can physically turn it around!
  12. "atmospheric advertising... those enormous advertisements reflected from the clouds, so large that they may be seen by the populations of whole cities or even of entire countries... a thousand projectors are constantly engaged in displaying upon the clouds these mammoth advertisements."

    "a cloudless sky! That's too bad... Shall we produce rain? That we might do, but is it of any use? What we need is clouds, not rain."
    "go see Mr. Samuel Mark, of the meteorological division of the scientific department, and tell him for me to go to work in earnest on the question of artificial clouds. It will never do for us to be always thus at the mercy of cloudless skies!"

    Cool. If you live in India during summer, you can go completely crazy because of always overcast skies!
  13. "Is war possible in view of modern inventions - asphyxiating shells capable of being projected a distance of 60 miles, an electric spark of 90 miles, that can at one stroke annihilate a battalion; to say nothing of the plague, the cholera, the yellow fever, that the belligerents might spread among their antagonists mutually, and which would in a few days destroy the greatest armies?"
  14. "For him, instead of the endless suites of apartments of the olden time, one room fitted with ingenious mechanical contrivances is enough. Here he sleeps, takes his meals, in short, lives."

    At the press of a button, this room transforms from a bedroom to dining room to bathroom...!
  15. "he turned the tap for the first dish. For like all wealthy folk in our day, Mr. Smith has done away with the domestic kitchen and is a subscriber to the Grand Alimentation Company, which sends through a great network of tubes to subscribers' residences all sorts of dishes".
  16. "by the aid of our solar and terrestrial accumulators and transformers, we are able to make all the seasons the same. I propose to do something better still. Transform into heat a portion of the surplus energy at our disposal; send this heat to the poles; then the polar regions, relieved of their snow-cap, will become a vast territory available for man's use."

    I wonder how Mr Verne missed out figuring out that this would flood the existing coasts, apart from weather changes which is already a solved problem in this story.
  17. "Dr. Nathaniel Faithburn... being a firm believer in human hibernation--in other words, in the possibility of our suspending our vital functions and of calling them into action again after a time--resolved to subject the theory to a practical test. To this end, having first made his last will and pointed out the proper method of awakening him; having also directed that his sleep was to continue a hundred years to a day from the date of his apparent death, he unhesitatingly put the theory to the proof in his own person.

    Reduced to the condition of a mummy, Dr. Faithburn was coffined and laid in a tomb."

    During the story, we witness the attempt at his resurrection - he has completed 100 years in hibernation. Only he will be found dead already for 100 years - apparently, his experiment had failed.
  18. "touching a knob, he established communication with the Central Concert Hall, whence our greatest maestros send out to subscribers their delightful successions of accords determined by recondite algebraic formulas."

    Some kind of remote music piping service.
  19. "Thanks to the Piano Electro-Reckoner, the most complex calculations can be made in a few seconds. In two hours Mr. Smith completed his task."

    Mr Smith wanted to tally some financial transactions - where you will probably use a spreadsheet today.

Collected in.

  1. David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Ed)'s "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF".

Fact sheet.

"In the Year 2889", short story, review
Alternate titles: "The Day of an American Journalist in the Year 2889", "Time Travelers".
First published in English: The Forum, New York, February 1889.
Rating: A

On authorship of this story.

  1. According to a note in Project Gutenberg's copy of this story: "Although published under the name of Jules Verne, it is now believed to be chiefly if not entirely the work of Jules' son, Michel Verne."
  2. According to another source, "This story was written by Michel Verne (Verne's son) Jules Verne later modified it and it was published in 1890 as La journée d'un journaliste américain en 2890 with the title changed so the date of publication would be 1000 years before the date of the story."
  3. Some more enlightenment is provided on the authorship & history of this story in Editor's Note (in pink at the beginning) of this online copy of the story.