Have you ever seen renderings or book covers from the 1800s in which the artist attempts to envision and portray a future world? They always seem quaint compared to the contemporary world as it has been realized—proof that we are so limited in imagining the unknown that it will always take on shades of what we have in front of us today. Early science fiction is the same way, as we see in Paolo Mantegazza’s The Year 3000: A Dream translated in its entirety into English for the first time by David Jacobson.
Mantegazza’s thirty-first century couple, Paolo and Maria, is making a global trek to obtain a marriage license and the right to “transmit life to future generations.” In one of their last stops in Andropolis, the global capitol, the pair go to the museum of natural history, which houses samples of all life forms as well as “possible people.” These “possible people” are scientist’s renderings of alien beings, and Paolo finds them hilarious:
“Oh, my dear Maria, how comical these planetary angels are, how grotesque, above all, how impossible! . . . We can imagine only anthropomorphic forms, and so, just as the ancient founders of theogonies could fashion their gods only by clothing them in human skin, so these odd creators of supermen were unable to go beyond the human and the animal world.”
This is one of several moments in which Mantegazza reveals he is aware of his own limitations and obsolescence as one making predictions about a utopic future world. Though he really needn’t, considering that many of his previsions about biology, medicine, global politics and communication weren’t far from the mark. Indeed, things such as the CAT scan, credit cards, EU, and the Internet are eerily similar to what we find in the United Planetary States. Needless to say, other details couldn’t be further from our reality one-hundred and thirteen years later, which both is and isn’t the point. The fun of reading the otherwise very dry 3000 is to imagine Mantegazza imagining us and re-imagining ourselves and our future 3000. Pireddu’s useful notes also help us locate ourselves in his time and mind.
Employing elements common to other science fiction writers of the time, such as Felix Bodin and Emile Souvestre, Mantegazza crafts his world to a greater purpose than simply making fantastic predictions. A physician, surgeon, naturalist, anthropologist and general jack-of-all-trades, Paolo Mantegazza combined his interest in science with his investment in political and moral questions of his day in his varied writings. He participated in the 5 Days Revolt for Italian independence in Milan at the age of 16 and later served as senator under the newly unified Regno d’Italia.
From the distance of this futuristic setting, Paolo, Maria and their guides can look back to the ancient world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to criticize different aspects of society and culture. It’s a Swiftian move that gives his critiques of socialism, science, industry, religion, and especially the Aesthetic movement in art (it appears literally as a “black spot, a blot drawn over the last period of the nineteenth century” on the Art History map in Andropolis) a certain amount of distance.
In one chapter, Paolo and Maria visit the island of Ceylon, which is a sort of museum to past forms of governance. It becomes clear which forms the author feels don’t work, tyranny and socialism, for example. What is less clear is how this new peaceful, well-oiled United States of Earth really works and why. It appears that in their evolution humans have become less greedy, groping, and conniving. Mantegazza briefly attributes this to improvements in communication, which “brought men closer to one another, making hatred more difficult and war impossible.” If only twitter could save us.
What is evident, through presumptions such is these, is Mantegazza is optimistic about the future and especially about the role of science. In his future world humans all speak a universal language, there is universal suffrage, and improvements in medicine and infrastructure have made peoples lives infinitely more livable—people live to the ripe age of 70! Indeed, the greatest religion in this world is a cult to Hope. Even the stoic scientist Paolo can’t help but be moved when he and Maria visit the Temple of Hope in Andropolis. And while life with these evolved, efficient, almost naïve thirty-first century humans seems like it might get dull pretty quick, you don’t mind taking a quiet tour past the statues and beautiful fountains for a few pages.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .