In the year 1899, French artist Jean-Marc Côté created a series of images representing France "In the year 2000". First given away as trading cards in cigar boxes, the images were supposed to become a series of postcards, to be circulated as part of the celebrations for the birth of the 20th century. Apparently nothing came out of it, and much later Isaac Asimov acquired the only surviving set of postcards.
And yet, the series was so popular it was continued in 1900, 1901 and in 1910 - testifying the cultural impact and the deep social penetration of the concepts Côté represented.
Côté's designs provide glimpses of the technological marvels of the future - and in this lies the power of this collection. The future is represented as a bizarre landscape in which the commonplace co-exists with the wondrous, in a very positive, optimistic way. The future, Côté is telling us, will be a good place to live in.
Technology will be "normal".
Even catastrophes - such as a fire threatening a Parisian family - are met with the help of a benevolent technology that seems to penetrate all aspects of daily living: school, leisure, travel, even chicken feeding.
Radium is used to heat upper class parlors were elegant ladies entertain dashing gentlemen.
Crank-operated machines feed knowledge directly into the ears of the students.
Policemen wearing bat-winged backpacks pursue small aircraft in the skies of the cities.
Bee's Polish (shoe polish), and we can truly say that in those years, the future was in everybody's mind.
The general public was developing a true passion for a strange, different, exciting future.
And yet, there is a fundamental difference - Robida, who is often considered Verne's main competitor, was not an adventure writer like Verne, but rather a satirist.
The year 1952 narrated and sketched by Robida is not a venue for scientific adventure (as in Verne) or for cautionary tales and political speculation (as in Wells), but rather a deforming mirror, handing us a comical rendition of the late 19th century society and its ills.
Robida's attitude seems to anticipate the bitter irony of the phrase "the future is so bright I have to wear shades"...
And yet nothing escapes Robida's wit and sting (let's not call it snark) - yes, he seems to say, the future will be full of marvels, but the end result will be ridiculous. Just like today.
But Grandville is not interested in technology or the future - and his "other world" could be an alien planet, or really the Other World, the land of the dead.
Grandville casts a long shadow on the fantastic imagination of the late 19th and early 20th century, but his influence is felt mostly on the form, not the contents, of Robida and later of Côté. And as he sets to work on his "year 2000" trading cards, Jean-Marc Côté is not interested in Robida's unrelenting lampooning of his contemporary society - just as he is not interested in Grandville's grotesqueries .
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Sure, and the skies will be clogged with traffic jams at the exit from the Opera.
Personal flying backpacks?
Why not - flying out of our lover's bedroom will make evading her enraged husband easier.
Powerful new tools for learning?
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A visual telegraph allowing us to speak and see each other at a distance?
It will mean the end of privacy, and everybody will probably call while we are taking a bubble bath, or are entertaining a lady.
It has been pointed out that Robida's anticipation is often spot on. From the emancipation of women to pollution and the impact of technology on the waging of war, even the coming of the world wide web, the French author's imagination of the future is extremely accurate.
Maybe for the simple reason that a bright future is good for business - one does not sell cigars (or chocolates) using fearful, tragic or menacing imagery.
Whatever his deep reasons, with his bright future filled with strange machines Côté is probably the true forefather of what we call steampunk esthetics - the imagination of the future through the lens of the past, with a playful but positive attitude.
On the other hand, Robida might be the originator of the more "-punk" branch of the culture - the one that criticizes and mocks conventions.
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And there is also an undeniable influence, in terms of "look and feel", from such seminal films as Disney's "20.000 Leagues under the Sea", or in Karel Zeman's wondrous adaptations of Verne.
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This was, back then, the future: a mix of extraordinary and commonplace, offered with an underlying certainty that all was going to be for the best.
History would show that Robida's cynicism was - once again - spot on and chillingly exact in its envisioning of the future. But in the last days of the century, Europe was dreaming Côté dreams, and we inherited some of them.
By Davide Mana - See more by David @ The GreyWorld Blog - greyworld.co