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The Twentieth Century by Albert Robida
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's review
Aug 21, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, speculative-fiction
Read in July, 2011

Jules Verne is often viewed as one of the creators of the genre of Science Fiction, but there is another French author who is mistakenly overlooked for his contributions. Albert Robida produced the incredible “Le Vingtième Siecle” (“The Twentieth Century”) which was published in 1883. Robida’s future is full of wonderful inventions and predictions, some of which are very accurate (tourism, pollution, etc.) and some of which were nowhere near the mark. Also included are Robida’s illustrations, and Robida is, perhaps, the first SF artist. Regardless, Robida’s imagination is a good partner for Verne’s Voyages Extrodinaires which Verne attempted to keep well grounded in what was definitely possible.

This edition of “The Twentieth Century” by Albert Robida from Wesleyan University Press is the First English Edition of the book, and as far as I am concerned is the best of their “Early Classics of Science Fiction” series thus far. The eleventh book in this excellent series brings together an exciting and interesting work which has never had an English Translation before with a superb introduction and supporting documentation that make this a real five-star effort. I have loved this series from the start, so it was certainly not a given that this would be the best of the first eleven books in the series.

“The Twentieth Century” opens in the year 1952 and is focused on Hélène Colobry, the niece of banker Raphael Ponto. The story follows Hélène’s search for what she wants to do, with her uncle pushing her in different directions. Not surprisingly, a key factor in the story is the environment, and Robida envisions some wondrous technology and some massive political and societal changes in the seventy years between when he wrote the work and when it takes place.

Among the predictions which amaze are: the world becoming media saturated, with news and entertainment merging and advertisements dominating broadcasts. He was a bit early in his prediction, but it is continuing to become more and more accurate. The tunnel under the British Channel is a very specific prediction which also came true later. Telecommunications are another prediction, though not as bold since the Telephone was in existence at the time, just nowhere near as predominate as Robida makes it, and Robida does predict the merging and homogenizing of cultures, as well as the dominance of multinational corporations.

Predictions that have yet to come true are the total equality of women in the workplace, and of course Robida’s political predictions are very far out there, with the Chinese taking half the U.S., and Germany the other half, with a Mormon state squeezed between the two. He also has Italy turning into an amusement park, and other large changes as well. Oddly enough he does predict the Chinese civil war, but given the rest of his predictions are so far off it is difficult to give him much credit for that. Nevertheless, his attempts are an early example of including politics in an SF novel.

All in all, this is a wonderful example of early science fiction, from an author who is largely unknown to those who do not read French. Philippe Willems contributes an excellent introduction as well as a superb translation. One can only hope that Wesleyan uses the same team to provide an English translation of “La Guerre au Vingtième Siècle” (1887) and “Le Vingtième Siècle. La Vie Électrique” (1890) which would add tremendously to both the series as well as the awareness of Robida’s works. No doubt about this book, it is definitely a five-star effort.
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