Emilio Salgari, LE MERAVIGLIE DEL DUEMILA
1907. Kindle edition 2015
Le meraviglie del Duemila is a novel by Emilio Salgari which might be seen as a predecessor of science fiction proper in Italy in that it includes time travel, scientific and technological reference, and anticipation of the future.
The plot involves a scientist-character who has discovered a method to hibernate and therefore be able to survive for several years in quasi-death state until being revived. The scientist is accompanied in this adventure by a friend. Revived by a relative in the year 2000 as indicated in the scientist’s testament, the marvels of the future manifest themselves in terms of high developed technology which allows speed, easiness and comfort in daily life, and an attempt to control crime through Siberian as well as submarine prisons where inmates reform voluntarily but are administered the death penalty if they rebel. This positivist, utopian society reveals itself to be dystopian in the end – a rebellion in a prison becomes extremely violent, and the travellers from the twentieth century go insane due to excessive exposure to electricity, that is the main source of energy imagined by Salgari on future planet Earth .
Aircrafts are foreseen by Salgari as machines capable of flying at over 100 km per hour: “una specie di macchina volante, fornita di quattro ali gigantesche e di eliche grandissime”. A “stoffa vegetale” replaces animal fabric. Agriculture has developed to the detriment of pastures due to the extinction of several animal species, so vegetarianism is the diet of human beings. The demographic problem is serious: “la popolazione del globo in questi ultimi anni è enormemente cresciuta”. Life is hurried: “Erano molto più calmi gli uomini, mentre ora vedo che perfino le signore marciano a passo di corsa, come se avessero paura di perdere il treno”. Armies have disappeared. Socialism “è scomparso dopo una serie di esperimenti che hanno scontentato tutti e contentato nessuno”.
The problem of evil has been controlled but not solved: “la scienza tutto ha perfezionato fuorché la razza, e l’uomo malvagio è rimasto malvagio. Passeranno secoli e secoli ma, levato lo strato di vernice datogli dalla civiltà, sotto si troverà sempre l’uomo primitivo dagli istinti sanguinari”.
Contact has been made with Martians depicted as different from human beings (“sono anfibi che rassomigliano alle foche, con braccia cortissime, che terminano con dieci dita, e piedi molto grandi e palmati” e “hanno delle teste quattro volte più grosse delle nostre”), but as competent as Earthlings in “civiltà e scienza”.
Some comparison could be made with George Orwell’s The Time Machine (1895) as the archetype of time travel in the time span of fin de siècle to the end of the 1910s, and with some of Jules Verne’s fiction (mostly, perhaps, 1872 Le tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours since the protagonists of Le meraviglie del Duemila travel the best part of the planet and insist on the speed granted by modern means of transport, and a clear reference to Verne is made in the statement of a character “Il giro del mondo in una settimana!”).
Part of the problems to be confronted in relation to Le meraviglie del Duemila is the different approach to science in the early 1910s in further industrially developed countries such as France and the United Kingdom if compared to Italy, and the combination of fable and scientific narrative within an adventurous structure - partly this also leads back to a stronger separation at the time, in Italy, once again if compared to France and Great Britain, between the “two cultures”.
Finally, one could reflect on how from such premises Italian science fiction has evolved since that old novel.