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A president and a prophet

Encounters with the future in Tulsa’s sister city

Jules Verne’s home in Amiens, FR

Elliot Rambach

When Emmanuel Macron won France’s presidential election on May 7, he also became the second-most celebrated product of Tulsa’s French sister city, Amiens. For this provincial city in France’s crumbling, industrial north, who could be more notable than a president? The answer: Jules Verne, the visionary science fiction novelist and the second-most translated writer of all time, after Agatha Christie and ahead of William Shakespeare. 

Jules Verne is credited with inventing the genre of science fiction, and published multiple books that now reside in the cultural shorthand, like “Around the World in 80 Days,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Held up to today’s amazing, terrifying, engulfing technology, Verne’s 19th-century visions of the future are prophetic; it’s not a stretch to say that Verne invented a blueprint for humanity in the hours he spent writing and staring out the window of his study in his home
in Amiens.

I traveled to Amiens two weeks ago, after the first round of the French presidential election, when the 39-year-old liberal, centrist Macron and far-right, ethno-nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen had advanced to the election’s second-round runoff. Le Pen, who had polled high in the region, had promised a program of economic and ethnic nationalism. Macron offered a positive vision of a new France, one which leads the rest of the world in science, technology, and innovation. 

In the days before May 7, Macron’s campaign revealed that their electronic communications had been obtained by hackers, packaged into a single, downloadable file, and released onto the Internet. Whoever compromised their systems had reportedly done so to persuade voters to abandon him en masse just days before the election. Those hoping to avoid a far-right takeover held their breath to see if such technological intrigue would sway the results, as some say it did in last year’s American election.

The answer turned out to be no. Macron and his optimistic, forward-looking platform won with 66.1 percent of total votes nationally. In Amiens, Macron won by a margin of 3 to 1.

I returned to Amiens two days after the election of Macron, and saw little acknowledging the success of its hometown candidate. Other than placards placed outside of grocery stores to advertise the day’s newspaper, reading “Macron wins on the back of his frontieres,” there was little to indicate that such a quaint mid-sized city had placed one of its sons in the nation’s highest office.

Determined to find green space outside of Amiens’ chalky, concrete center, I walked to Jules Verne’s former home, a three-story townhouse where he lived from 1882 until his death in 1905, now a museum of all things Verne. 

From a distance, the Maison Verne stands out; atop its circular tower is a globe, surrounded by metal rings intended to visualize the movement of celestial bodies around the earth. Though history proved Verne to be a visionary of contemporary technology like submarines, helicopters, worldwide media telecasts, and live videoconferencing, he was first and foremost an explorer of other cultures, and focused primarily on how technology could connect people around the world. He imagined coming times when the world would shape itself around instantaneous communication and high-speed transportation, leading to a global vision of a better future.

However, later in life, Verne witnessed the impact of industrialization on working people and became reticent about technology’s potential. In his story, “The Day of an American Journalist in 2889,” Verne imagined a world controlled by a small handful of powerful empires: the Americans, the French, the Russians, the Chinese. In the story, the true leader of America is not the president, but the heir to a media empire, Fritz Napoleon Smith. Smith is America’s intelligent and level-headed CEO, and humanity has accessed unlimited renewable energy from sunshine, water, and the wind. And yet, nations hurl chemical weapons at one another, companies continuously project advertisements onto clouds in the sky, and the U.S. government experiments with cryogenically reanimating its most famous and privileged men. It is both utopia and dystopia, caused by technology.

After touring Verne’s home, I stopped in a lush green park near a bust depicting Verne, with several young people carved into the marble plinth below him, reading and presumably enjoying his books. In this park it was only me and a group of teenagers, dressed in mostly gray and black and playing loud music on a plastic, battery-powered speaker. I admired the view of Verne’s home, photographed his statue with the conspicuously touristy camera around my neck, and listened to the teenagers laugh, possibly at me. 

I heard a sound, turned around, and locked eyes with one of the teenagers as he released a stream of urine onto a nearby bush.

Read Elliot’s first dispatch from Amiens here.