THE YEAR 2440 (1771) – Written by Louis-Sebastien Mercier, this French novel was at first published anonymously in Holland because of its criticism of the French aristocracy and of religion. Also for its bold rejection of societal norms of the time period. It was years before Mercier dared to take public credit for the work, and even then he did so largely because some were crediting The Year 2440 to Rousseau or Voltaire.
The novel was wildly popular for such an underground work and had to be smuggled into a country and then sold by merchants who dealt in “illicit reading material.” The Spanish Inquisition put it on its list of prohibited books. Here in the U.S. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are known to have owned First Editions of The Year 2440.
This story opens in the year 1768. The unnamed narrator argues with a friend about the perceived rights and wrongs of life in contemporary France. After falling asleep, he awakens incredibly aged and finds himself in the year 2440 A.D. Since this is fiction, he is believed when he describes his plight to a citizen of that future Paris. The sympathetic figure agrees to give our narrator a tour.
The 25th Century has abandoned many ideas that the narrator felt were already outdated by 1768, and his description of the new values was considered to be blasphemous and revolutionary to the extent of calling for an insurrection.
The judicial system has been overhauled to dispense with the privileges of the old ruling classes and arbitrary arrests have become a thing of the distant past. Very few lawyers are left. Punishments can range from mere public censure to the death penalty.
Hospitals are held to scientific standards, not superstition nor what we would today call “Lysenkoism” in terms of politically motivated pseudo-science. The same applies to the educational profession, as a virtual “separation of science and state” has been established to prevent the politically powerful from forcing their preferences on society at large.
Another plus is that assistance is provided for the handicapped.
Mercier entered into more controversial territory when it came to concepts and institutions that were banned in 2440. That list will both please and annoy virtually everyone, because no matter how many items one agrees with, there are plenty of others to be outraged by.
Judged to be useless, outdated and/or immoral: standing armies, unions/ guilds, clergy members, prostitutes, public begging, dance teachers, slavery, frilly clothing, taxes and foreign trade. Perhaps most baffling of all, pastry chefs, coffee, tea and tobacco are all outlawed. (Dammit, when pastry chefs are outlawed only outlaws will have pastry chefs!)
Going further with his “baby with the bathwater” approach, Mercier considers it a plus that the society of the future disdains so much of the literature of the past. There has been such wholesale eradication of reading material that the most expansive library in Paris consists of a single room! Indeed, it was LIBRARIANS THEMSELVES who spent years selecting old books to be destroyed.
While it’s certainly admirable that the author outraged the religious authorities, the rich and the powerful with The Year 2440 it’s impossible to ignore the way he was just fine with much oppressive thinking that the soon-to-be-fallen Ancien Regime would have applauded.
Regarding the world at large, Japan had opened its arms to other nations and French literature (the whole whopping room-full of it that had not been eliminated) was studied everywhere, even in China. French culture was embraced and emulated globally.
The former colonies of France and Great Britain had all become independent nations. France itself was a constitutional monarchy with that Monarch being a Philosopher King who must retire at age 70. The ruler in waiting lived among the people as just another citizen, unaware of their own future role until they turned 22.
As for scientific and technological advancements of the 25th Century, medicines have been so highly developed that surgery is virtually a thing of the past. Transparent stonework has been invented and has replaced glass for many uses. Lights which burn forever have also been invented.
The fate of the soul after death has come under the purview of science rather than religion, with a scientifically established system of reincarnation taught to all. That system outlines the exact course that a soul will take after death as it reincarnates on each planet in the solar system. (Regular readers will recall that this concept of interplanetary reincarnation was used fairly frequently in “ancient” science fiction.)
Typical of all such utopian literature, Mercier’s ideal future comes complete with absurdities which render its realization impossible. For instance he writes that all “unpleasant labor” is done by volunteers. Uh. Yeah. Why didn’t WE think of that?
In addition, Louis-Sebastien tells readers that divorce is easily obtained, yet families are all very close-knit. He also seems to gloss over exactly what his future society has in mind for women. Forced marriages are no longer allowed, but women don’t seem to be considered full citizens, since Mercier referred only to “all adult males” signing a document saying they understand the laws and all of their rights and responsibilities as citizens.
The Year 2440 ends with a series of excerpts from newspapers of the 25th Century. So newspapers make a comeback in the future! How about that! Seriously, though, this novel is worth at least one reading because of its historical significance and its bold willingness to explore uncharted societal territory. Its “science” content is pretty slight compared to its general “fiction” content, though.
FOR TEN MORE EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/03/03/ten-neglected-examples-of-ancient-science-fiction/
FOR WASHINGTON IRVING’S 1809 depiction of an invasion from the moon click here: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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