AMIENS, FRANCE—Literary scholars announced Monday that they have unearthed a 33-page handwritten manuscript of "The Camera-Phone," a short story believed to have been written in 1874 by French novelist Jules Verne, the man often considered to be the originator of modern science fiction.
"The discovery of this highly prophetic work is exciting in both a literary and a social context," Jean-Michel Frelseien of the Ecole-Polytechnique said Monday. "This story of a hand-held communications and picture-taking device that leads to social upheaval in 21st-century France provides yet another example of Verne's celebrated prescience."
"Le Telephon-Photographique," which Frelseien identified as having been written just after Verne's masterpiece 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, is narrated by Gui Cingulaire, the nephew of brilliant but monomaniacal professor Bernard Cingulaire. An ambitious, gifted scientist, Bernard fails to predict that his invention, a portable telephone that can take photographs and send short script messages, will contribute to the breakdown of traditional manners among Parisians.
Frelseien said the manuscript was found among the belongings of Verne's publisher, Pierre-Jules Hertzel, along with an uncompleted letter rejecting the work as "pessimistic, preposterous, and unappealing in premise."
"Verne's view of a 21st-century Paris overrun by camera-phone-toting nabobs is indeed dismal," Frelseien said. "But in all of its particulars, the story is classic Verne. The main character is a strong-minded and brilliant scientist-inventor, symbolizing the ambition and drive of the Industrial Age. The clever but wide-eyed narrator's breathless appetite for knowledge pulls the reader along. And the technological centerpiece of the story—as usual, powered by Verne's beloved electricity—sets the stage for conflict between the characters."
"Where the story departs from a typical Verne piece, however, is in the level of devastation wrought by the innovation," Frelseien added. "The infuriated victims of the camera-phone-dominated society eventually put all of Europe to the torch."
The story, which has yet to be translated into English, has been lauded by literary scholars around the world.
"It's an absolutely wonderful and engaging piece of work," Harvard professor of French literature Neil McGraw said. "Professor Cingulaire, a noted eccentric, is convinced by his unscrupulous creditors to patent and market his long-distance-communications and image-transmission device, in spite of his misgivings. At first, use of the phone is prevalent only among the bourgeois, but it soon spreads throughout social strata."
As use of the device becomes commonplace, McGraw said, normal societal relations between citizens break down.
"Rudeness becomes ubiquitous, as the device's infuriating notification-chimes invade every corner of public life," McGraw said. "When the ethically bereft begin transmitting images obtained under questionable circumstances, espionage becomes so prevalent as to threaten the integrity of the French populace."
Frelseien and other scholars at the Ecole-Polytechnique are searching for other unpublished stories mentioned in the recently recovered papers, including "The Massaging-Chair," "Incident At A Café Of Thinking-Machines," and "The Satellite Initiative For Strategic Defense."