Millenial Fever

21 November 96

As we approach the dawning of the 21st Century and the Third Millennium, I notice an increasingly peculiar trend in science fiction: namely, that the time period just ahead of us, long underrepresented in SF, remains so now, perhaps more aggressively than ever. Oh sure, we have 2001 and 2012, some cyberpunk stuff in the 2015-2040 range, lots of space opera kicking in at 2050, and onward thence to the jungles of far-future speculation.

Some of this far-future stuff is awful, by the way, postulating societies which possess FTL and antigravity, nanotech and sometimes even time travel, but somehow retain striking similarities to mid-20th century America. Like the way electricity and internal combustion had no effect on our 19th century agrarian culture, you know? The failures of imagination here are truly shocking.

But anyway, the near future. The near future, hmm. What's the problem here, gang? Why is it so hard to set a story in 2005? Here, society really will be mostly familiar, with only a tweak here, a nip and tuck there: a new technology, a new disease, a new political movement or public appetite. What could be easier?

We in science fiction tend to pride ourselves on skepticism, agnosticism, open-mindedness coupled with a rejection of hearsay and superstition, a refusal to accept unsubstantiated claims or baseless appeals to symmetry or faith or numerology. Unfortunately, this is poppycock -- science fiction, like all the other fundamentalist religions, is suffering from millennial fever. That big odometer is about to kick over, and like children facing a family move to a strange new city, we find ourselves clinging to the old neighborhood or dreaming of far-off adult triumphs, unable to imagine the smaller transformations this new environment will force upon us. For shame.

The good news is that the condition is temporary. Once we see the new 'hood, start figuring out who our friends and enemies are and which shops sell the best licorice, things will settle down and start to seem pretty normal again.

Meanwhile, here is my listener's guide to the band gap, my topo chart of the Here Be Tygers void that looms before us: First, the U.S. really will balance its budget, though 2-3 years late. This will be of critical importance, because by 2006 we'll be riding a wave of nationwide enthusiasm and optimism the like of which has not been seen since VJ Day. Second, virtual reality will just be entering the prime of its life as a consumer product at this same time. Now, the War On Drugs may be a long time dying, but VR is at least as good a social lubricant as booze and dope ever were, not to mention being safer, and it's enough like the TV, movies, video games, and laser shows we already have that puritans will have a very hard time banning it, and may not even try. And medical progress will be making the world ever safer for the return of casual sex and substance abuse anyway.

So barring total economic collapse, the Late Aughts will be at least as much a party time as the early 80's, possibly as much as the mid 70's, and there isn't a damned thing Pat Robertson can do about it. What's so scary about that? Alas, the party will start tapering off around 2010 and die horribly by 2015, as the Baby Boomer Retirement Wave crests, depleting treasuries and paychecks and hope for a better future, and the next big party decade won't be until the 2040's or 50's when the last of the Boomers finally start dying off. So get your yucks in while you can, my friends, and for God's sake don't fear the millennium. It's likely to be the time of our lives.

See last quarter's rant.

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