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This is a first edition of the revised English edition
L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (literally, in English, The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One; but the title has been rendered into English as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred or Memoirs of the Year 2500, and also as Astraea’s Return, or The Halcyon Days of France in the Year 2440: A Dream) is a 1771 novel by Louis-Sébastien Mercier.
It has been described as one of the most popular and controversial novels of the 18th century, one of the earliest works of science fiction, and the first work of utopian fiction set in the future rather than at a distant place in the present.
The novel describes the adventures of an unnamed man who, after engaging in a heated discussion with a philosopher friend about the injustices of Paris, falls asleep and finds himself in a Paris several centuries into the future. He wanders through the changed city, eventually ending up in the ruins of the Palace of Versailles. Mercier’s hero notes everything that catches his fancy in this futuristic Paris. Public space and the justice system have been reorganized. Citizens’ garb is comfortable and practical. Hospitals are effective and science-based. There are no monks, priests, prostitutes, beggars, dancing masters (i.e., dance teachers), pastry chefs, standing armies, slavery, arbitrary arrest, taxes, guilds, foreign trade, coffee, tea, or tobacco: such occupations, institutions, and products have been adjudged to be useless and immoral – as has much previously written literature, which has been willingly destroyed by the future librarians, who proudly display their library, reduced to a single room of only the most valuable works.
Written only 18 years before the French Revolution of 1789, the book describes a future secular, pacifist France that has been established through a peaceful revolution led by a “philosopher-king” who has set up a system resembling a parliamentary monarchy. The future utopian, egalitarian France is portrayed as having no religion and no military.
Everett C. Wilkie Jr. notes that there have been many erroneous statements concerning Mercier’s bibliography in general, and about the publication history of L’An 2440 in particular.
According to Evelyn L. Forget, Mercier finished the first manuscript in 1768, though Wilkie writes that parts of the book clearly date to 1770, as they reference events of that year. Sources also vary as to the year of the book’s first edition, citing 1770 or 1771. Wilkie writes it might have been “pulled off the press so late in 1770 that it was dated 1771, the year it was actually sold”, but “despite evidence to the contrary [as no known edition dating to 1770 has been found], scholarly practice has made the supposed 1770 edition of this novel an enduring bibliographical ghost”. The confusion is partly the fault of Mercier himself, who at different times gave both dates as the year of the first edition’s publication. Wilkie concludes that the only fact that Mercier was consistent about is that the first edition was published in Amsterdam by E. van Harrevelt, and existing evidence strongly favours 1771 – probably the summer – as the correct date of publication.
Due to its controversial criticism of the Ancien Régime and portrayal of a secular future, the novel was at first not allowed to be published, appearing anonymously and being trafficked underground by smugglers and illicit booksellers. Despite being banned in France and Spain (including by the Holy See in 1773 and by the Spanish Inquisition in 1778, earning it a place in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – it was also supposedly burned by the Spanish king himself) the novel quickly became popular in France, where it had over twenty editions during Mercier’s lifetime, and hence was described as an “underground bestseller”; it also received a number of translations abroad (and a number of unauthorized – in other words, pirated and even slightly altered – editions). It has been described as “one of the eighteenth century’s most successful books” (and “one of the most controversial”), with an estimated over 60,000 copies in several languages printed during that time, although its reception by contemporary critics was mixed. By the late 1770s Mercier admitted his authorship of the novel, and his name finally appeared in the 1791 edition, after the fall of the Ancien Régime; due to Mercier’s late admission of authorship, some early versions of the novel were attributed to Rousseau or to Voltaire.
It has been translated to English first in 1772 by William Hooper; it was the first utopia published in the United States, and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, among others, owned the first edition. Around the same time it was also translated to Dutch and German, and a few years later into Italian. For the English edition, Hooper changed the title to Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred or Memoirs of the Year 2500 and added a number of footnotes (Mercier’s choice of the somewhat awkward number 2440 might be related to it being his 700th birthday, whereas Hooper’s title, described as “perplexing” by one scholar, is likely due to his preference for a simpler, rounded up title). Mercier published four editions (1771, 1774, 1786 and 1779), although there is some further controversy surrounding the 1774 edition, whose authorship Mercier later denied. The revised edition of 1786, now under the title L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante, Suivi de L’Homme de Fer: Songe (lit. The Year Two Thousand Four Hundred and Forty, Followed by The Iron Man: Dream, with L’Homme de Fer: Songe being a new, separate short story) was in turn partially translated to English by Harriot Augusta Freeman under another liberally changed title, Astraea’s Return, or The Halcyon Days of France in the Year 2440: A Dream (according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, as of 2019, no official English translation of the revised 1786 version exists). Neither the Hooper nor Freeman’s translations were authorized by Mercier, and both translators openly admitted they did not know who the author was (he was first attributed as the author in English in an 1802 translation of his work). This copy offered by F.B.A. is a very rare copy of this 1802 edition.
Despite its popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the work has been described as quickly eclipsed by others and “almost forgotten” by the second half of the 20th century.
L’An 2440 was one of the most famous works – if not the most famous – by Mercier. It has been described as an “important milestone in the evolution of science fiction”, particularly of the utopian fiction variety, “[in its time an] exceedingly popular [work of] proto-science fiction”, and one of the first works in the genre focusing on the near future. Brian M. Stableford noted that “it laid the groundwork for the first theoretical discussion of the potential scope of futuristic fiction”. Its plot structure, showing a familiar setting centuries into the future, instead of some far-away but contemporary place, has been credited with starting “the crucial shift of utopia from the imaginary island to future time”. The book has also been described as “the first uchronia”. However, earlier novels by other writers had been set in the near future. These include Francis Cheynell’s Aulicus His Dream (1644), Jacques Guttin’s Epigone. Histoire du siècle futur (1659), Samuel Madden’s The Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733), and the anonymously written The Reign of George VI, 1900–1925 (1763). Mercier’s novel has been described as having been inspired by the Enlightenment philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and by earlier utopian fiction such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626).
The Year 2440 also inspired many later authors. Some of the earliest works to be influenced by it are Betje Wolff’s Holland in het jaar 2440 (1777), Vladimir Odoyevsky’s The Year 4338: Petersburg Letters (1835), and Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836). The growing popularity of the near future, the setting of Mercier’s novel, has been discussed as related to the growing popularity of the notion of progress.
One of the novel’s themes is slavery, and support for its abolition, and even advocacy of some limited decolonization – tempered, however, by Mercier’s view of Western culture (defined primarily on the superior example of French culture) and by his patriotism, which sees France as the world’s new, benevolent hegemon. Another theme concerns gender equality, in which realm Mercier has again been described as both progressive and conservative: in his future world, marriages are based on love, divorce is legal, and dowries are abolished; but ideal women are “free” to devote themselves to life at home as “good wives and mothers”.
The Year 2440 has been described as an important example of French pre-Revolutionary literary dissidence, and even as a veiled call for action – something made more explicit in the preface to later editions, in which Mercier describes himself as a leader whose work is helping usher in a coming “age of progress and universal happiness”, and in which calls his novel prophetic (a claim that is said to have drawn much derision from contemporaries). Robert Darnton writes that “despite its self-proclaimed character of fantasy … L’An 2440 demanded to be read as a serious guidebook to the future. It offered an astonishing new perspective: the future as a fait accompli and the present as a distant past. Who could resist the temptation to participate in such a thought experiment? And once engaged in it, who could fail to see that it exposed the rottenness of the society before his eyes, the Paris of the eighteenth century?”
Louis-Sébastien Mercier (6 June 1740 – 25 April 1814) was a French dramatist and writer, whose 1771 novel L’An 2440 is an example of proto-science fiction.
Mercier began his literary career by writing heroic epistles. He early came to the conclusion that Boileau and Racine had ruined the French language and that the true poet wrote in prose.
He wrote plays, pamphlets, and novels and published prodigiously. Mercier often recycled passages from one work to another and expanded on essays he had already written. Mercier’s keen observations on his surroundings and the journalistic feel of his writing meant that his work remained riveting despite the nature of its composition. “There is no better writer to consult,” Robert Darnton writes, “if one wants to get some idea of how Paris looked, sounded, smelled, and felt on the eve of the Revolution.”
The most important of his miscellaneous works are L’An 2440, rêve si il fut jamais (1771), L’Essai sur l’art dramatique (1773), Néologie ou Vocabulaire (1801), Le Tableau de Paris (1781–1788), Le nouveau Paris (1799), Histoire de France (1802) and Satire contre Racine et Boileau (1808).
He decried French tragedy as a caricature of antique and foreign customs in bombastic verse and advocated the drame as understood by Diderot. To the philosophers he was entirely hostile. He denied that modern science had made any real advance; he even carried his conservatism so far as to maintain that the earth was a circular flat plane around which revolved the sun.
Mercier wrote some sixty dramas, among which may be mentioned Jean Hennuyer (1772), La Destruction de la ligue (1782), Jennval (1769), Le Juge (1774), Natalie (1775) and La Brouette du vinaigrier (1775).
Literally, “The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One”; translated into English as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred [sic]; and into German as Das Jahr zwey tausend vier hundert und vierzig: Ein Traum aller Träume) is a utopian novel set in the year 2440. An extremely popular work (it went through twenty-five editions after its first appearance in 1770), the work describes the adventures of an unnamed man, who, after engaging in a heated discussion with a philosopher friend about the injustices of Paris, falls asleep and finds himself in a Paris of the future. Darnton writes that “despite its self-proclaimed character of fantasy… L’An 2440 demanded to be read as a serious guidebook to the future. It offered an astonishing new perspective: the future as a fait accompli and the present as a distant past. Who could resist the temptation to participate in such a thought experiment? And once engaged in it, who could fail to see that it exposed the rottenness of the society before his eyes, the Paris of the eighteenth century?”
In politics he was a moderate, and, as a member of the National Convention, he voted against the death penalty for Louis XVI. During the Reign of Terror, he was imprisoned, but he was released after the fall of Robespierre, whom he termed a “Sanguinocrat” (roughly, ruler by bloodshed).
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