Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Year 2440 (History of Science Fiction)


Louis-Sébastien Mercier (6 June 1740 – 25 April 1814) was a French dramatist and writer. Of humble origins but with a good education, he was prolific. He made detailed observations on life around him and is a key reference for life in Paris just before the French Revolution.


One of his most popular books was L'An 2440, rêve s'il en fut jamais (literally, The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One). It was published in 1770 and rapidly went through 25 editions. It tells of a man who went to sleep and woke up in the Paris of the future.

The man notes anything in this Paris that takes his fancy, commenting on everything from clothing to hospitals. Mercier details how he thinks a better life would work out, reorganising the public justice system, for example. There are also a lot of things that he decided would not make it to 2440: monks, priests, prostitutes, beggars, dancing masters, pastry chefs, standing armies, slavery, arbitrary arrest, taxes, guilds, foreign trade, coffee, tea or tobacco. He also decided that all useless and immoral previously-written literature has been destroyed.

Robert Darnton, an American historian who specialises in 18th century France, writes that "despite its self-proclaimed character of fantasy...L'An 2440 demanded to be read as a serious guidebook to the future. It offered an astonishing new perspective: the future as a fait accompli and the present as a distant past. Who could resist the temptation to participate in such a thought experiment? And once engaged in it, who could fail to see that it exposed the rottenness of the society before his eyes, the Paris of the eighteenth century?"

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