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The World As It Shall Be (Early Classics of Science Fiction) by Emile Souvestre
Review by Edward Carmien
Wesleyan University Press Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0819566152
Date: 01 October, 2004 List Price $29.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Reading fiction in translation can often be an awkward experience, akin to wearing one?s shoes on the wrong feet or to brushing one?s teeth with the hand unused to such exercise. The translator here, Margaret Clark, appears to have done a good job, and the only bar to enjoyment on the basis of language is the fact this is a text more than 150 years old and hence a bit old-fashioned.

This is the story of Maurice and Marthe, two young people pictured on page one in a window ?dreaming about the future of the human race,? who meet a fantastic figure. He enables their dream to become reality by putting them into a state of hibernation that resembles death. They are briefly a sensation in the French tabloids of the day before being forgotten until the year 3000, when they awaken to a future that gives the impression of being a time of great progress.

That impression wears away as the pair tour the future world, which has its capital in Tahiti and a travelogue of interesting characters and places for the time-travelers to observe and comment upon. To a contemporary reader the journey is rough and crude, but a thrilling tale told using the most modern of narrative conveniences is not the tale one picks this book up to read. Like later utopian and dystopian novels the point here is a review of the sensibilities of the time and culture of the author.

That many of the comments Souvestre makes still apply today is reason enough alone for those who work in the field of science fiction literature to become familiar with this text?serious readers outside of the academy might also appreciate giving this text a look. Rather than work through the text, I instead collect a number of noteworthy quotes that seem appropriate to our contemporary society.

Speaking of the workings of the justice system in the guise of instructing new lawyers in their craft:

Was it a case in forensic medicine? One must speak of the inexactitude of the sciences. Was it a case of vindicating a thief? He must be portrayed as a victim of the police. Was it a case of saving the hide of a murderer? He must be presented as having been overcome by a fit of madness.

As regards healthcare, in particular the cost of medical services:

?We give this name,? replied the Doctor, ?to the economies made at the expense of the patients. Let the soup be a little less rich?we have a bonus; and the bread not quite so white, another bonus; if the wine is mixed with water, yet another bonus! We have perfected this method in order to make a bit out of the housekeeping money that provides for ten thousand meals. In this way institutions grow rich, and bursars earn gratitude and extra money. One can say that, in principle, a well-run hospital is one where the patients are uncomfortable enough to ensure that the institution makes some money out of them.?

And if Atwood?s Oryx and Crake wasn?t scary enough for you, consider animal husbandry of the year 3000:

Again, the species preserved there had been very much improved through a program of crossbreeding that had changed their characteristic forms. They were no longer creatures governed by a law of proportion and harmony, but living things modified to give greater profits to the butchery business. Bulls, bred to put on a great deal of weight, had lost their bones; cows were no more than animated machines that turned grass into milk; pigs were no more than masses of flesh, growing larger before one?s very eyes.

And finally, in a clear forecast of the postmodern, these words upon the couple?s observing a lecture describing the France in which they had lived prior to sleeping through time to the year 3000:

?From now on we will know what constitutes a scientific investigation of history,? said Maurice, ?and what we should think of established truths. I now understand why these truths change in each century. History is a tangle of threads that each scholar unwinds and weaves into his own interpretation. The thread is always the same, but the material and the pattern vary according to the workman.?

These remarkable examples point out the extrapolative power that Souvestre expressed in The World As It Shall Be: each represents a logical extrapolation based on current events of his time. Legal battles worthy of media attention echo Souvestre?s neat digest of approaches to courtroom defenses, his scathing statement about the medical industry will seem familiar to anyone who has been caught up in its clutches, today?s animal husbandry practices aren?t quite as extreme as Souvestre describes but surely we?re well on our way with turkeys that can?t walk and well-dosed cattle herds?and most tellingly of all, perhaps, Souvestre expresses the very core of the postmodern sensibility when he notes how the nature of the worker changes the pattern of the scholarly output.

This text is certainly not for the everyday, casual reader of fantastic fiction. It is not quite as enjoyable as Verne, being more polemic and less devoted to adventure and narrative. Even Swift seems a bit more readable, to mention an author who wrote in a similar vein as Souvestre. I highly recommend this text, and Wesleyan?s early classics of science fiction series in general, for serious readers, scholars, and libraries.

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