There are three French novelists who say prophetic things in their writings, predictions that are based on intuition and sensibility and not on any formal forecasting at all, but far-seeing nevertheless. Consider these three:
Jules Verne (died in 1905):
Paris in the Twentieth Century (French: Paris au XXe siècle) is a science fiction novel by Jules Verne. The book presents Paris in August 1960, 97 years in Verne’s future, where society places value only on business and technology.
Written in 1863 but first published 131 years later (1994), the novel follows a young man who struggles unsuccessfully to live in a technologically advanced, but culturally backwards world. Often referred to as Verne’s “lost novel,” the work paints a grim, dystopian view of a technological future civilization.
Verne’s predictions for 1960:
The book’s description of the technology of 1960 was in some ways remarkably close to actual 1960s technology.
The book described in detail advances such as cars powered by internal combustion engines (“gas-cabs”) together with the necessary supporting infrastructure such as gas stations and paved asphalt roads, elevated and underground passenger train systems and high-speed trains powered by magnetism and compressed air, skyscrapers, electric lights that illuminate entire cities at night, fax machines (“picture-telegraphs”), elevators, primitive computers which can send messages to each other as part of a network somewhat resembling the Internet (described as sophisticated electrically powered mechanical calculators which can send information to each other across vast distances), the utilization of wind power, automated security systems, the electric chair, and remotely-controlled weapons systems, as well as weapons destructive enough to make war unthinkable.
The book also predicts the growth of suburbs and mass-produced higher education (the opening scene has Dufrénoy attending a mass graduation of 250,000 students), department stores, and massive hotels. A version of feminism has also arisen in society, with women moving into the workplace and a rise in illegitimate births. It also makes accurate predictions of 20th-century music, predicting the rise of electronic music, and describes a musical instrument similar to a synthesizer, and the replacement of classical music performances with a recorded music industry. It predicts that the entertainment industry would be dominated by lewd stage plays, often involving nudity and sexually explicit scenes.
Flaubert (died in 1880):
In his posthumous novel published in 1881, Bouvard and Pécuchet, a satire on random knowledge-seeking, the two clerks of the book title, conclude that sometime in the future, America will “take over” the world or its hegemonial leadership. To see that America would supplant Europe, in those days, is quite “counterintuitive.”
Bouvard and Pécuchet details the adventures of two Parisian copy-clerks, François Denys Bartholomée Bouvard and Juste Romain Cyrille Pécuchet, of the same age and nearly identical temperament. They meet one hot summer day in 1838 by the canal Saint-Martin and form an instant, symbiotic friendship. When Bouvard inherits a sizable fortune, the two decide to move to the countryside. They find a 94-acre (380,000 m2) property near the town of Chavignolles in Normandy, between Caen and Falaise, and 100 miles (160 km) west of Rouen. Their search for intellectual stimulation leads them, over the course of years, to flounder through almost every branch of knowledge.
Balzac (died in 1850):
In his novel, The Wild Ass’s Skin (La Peau de Chagrin), Balzac describes scenes and conversations which lead one insightful interpreter of his to remark: “On the level of world history, this incident can be read as an allegorical prefiguration of the contemporary conversion of Asia to the materialistic motivations of the technological societies of the West.” (Balzac: An Interpretation of La Comédie Humaine, F.J.W. Hemmings, Random House, 1967, page 173)
Hemmings says: “Europe and then American norms are generally accepted among what we call the advanced societies of the world: a civilization concerned above all to stimulate and then gratify the innumerable private desires of its citizens…In Balzac’s day, this civilization had reached its highest development in Paris.” (Hemmings’s book, page 173)
These three novelists bring to mind Heidegger’s (died in 1976) more recent sense that science and technology from Europe would take over dominant “planetary thinking” and that would “wring out” any sense of “being” or “being-in-the world.”
These three writers gave us “allegorical prefigurations” (to use the Hemmings’s phrase above) of the present which are startling in their far-seeing sense of things and that raises the question: who might their equivalents be in our time?