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Millennium Blues - beyond 2000
by Peter Schilling
We are now living in the much-heralded 21st century. A sobering thought for SF fans, isn't? As anyone in the know would have told you - the new millennium didn't start in 2000, but on the first of January 2001, as the Gregorian calendar (adopted by the West in 1752 and currently in general use) started with the year one, and not zero. Pedantry aside, it's still the big number two that makes the difference in our minds (and hearts), after so long neglecting to prefix dates with 19. One rather disturbing possibility that may yet occur in the tide of anticipated, expected overwhelming changes, is the slow death of science fiction...
Much of the popular and traditional SF, usually favoured by exploitative publishers, is squarely focused upon the potential changes and events of the Millennium. Seen as the gateway to a utopian age, free from past troubles, it's a chance to start over, a new beginning for everyone. We can see the New Age coming. Great social, economic and territorial changes are happening now, on all levels around the world. And it's spiralling upwards (and out of control?) at an accelerated rate, bringing the 2000 era into our lives so quickly few can cope or keep up with the pace. Changes are happening so fast, even the-powers-that-be cannot assimilate this New Order, failing to adjust, so as governments lose control of their dominions and currencies, commerce and market forces mount a swift takeover. Worrying, perhaps, because wholesale corruption then threatens to become an institution? Knowledge is the world's new capital, we are told. A Reckoning is coming, ready or not.
But look at how Orwell's seminal novel 1984 fell from grace with the passing of the year of its title. Similarly, in the mass-media entertainment field of movies, a great many early SF films, which were set in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, are already redundant. Their speculations about 'the future' now look quaint and sadly amusing. People seem to forget that (maybe) it's only because society was given these cautionary tales, that we have been able to avoid some of the dystopian elements they predicted may occur. The best way to predict the future is to invent it, right? So any exploration of the future's possibilities deserves everyone's full attention if only so that we will have some idea what to avoid.
Could it be that science fiction has now served its purpose? As any new ideas and experimental approaches to the genre seem to survive only in the specialist small press field, 'real' or commercial SF looks like becoming (and remaining) a minority interest, once again. The main point often overlooked about cyberpunk, was that it was more of a hardboiled literary style than a bunch of exciting science fiction themes. And since its principal exponents - Gibson, Sterling, et al - were so proficient at developing the trends and accelerating the so-called Movement to the speed of computerised thought with a single novel, Neuromancer, it's no wonder that the whole sub-genre was burned out in less than a decade.
As more and more of the previous generation's SF prophets admit defeat and sell out or slide into senility, their works are becoming easy targets for ridicule. So much of traditional SF was primarily concerned with forecasting possible changes due when the Millennium came, and these Nostradamus-like claims became so strong in the forward looking eyes of the public, that no-one seems to have given much thought to what happens to SF if, or when, date sensitive events have come to pass. Where does the SF genre go from here? For, whether it's actually the 23rd century of moralistic Star Trek, or the 25th century serial adventures of Buck Rogers, timelines are only relative. What's truly at issue here is the magic number 2001, of Kubrick's classic 'Space Odyssey' - still arguably, the proverbial space opera. So powerful is the message inherent in the date that even those poor unfortunates who have never seen the movie are clearly aware of what it represents. Even if (and this is often the case with those who have seen it) they fail to understand what it means...
The future is a second chance. With science and the church locked in mortal combat in a quest for The Big Truth, and answers to all those cosmic questions still bugging us all, the Millennium promises to vindicate one's theorem, or the other's belief. If Christ fails to re-appear by the end of 2001, will the already shaky organised religions still praying for a saviour, finally crumble away completely? If the most anticipated event in the Church's prospectus turns out to be an empty promise in the end ('Jesus No Show!' - screech the headlines) will it wreck the very foundations of Christianity? The edifice is already displaying significant structural faults...
If, as has often been suggested by SF scenarios, the dominant forces of the 21st century are not transitory administrations of state or royalty, but international corporations - which rigorously pursue their own capitalistic dreams of technocratic power into a new epoch, then how can science fiction survive in such a brash null world?
The Artist is in retreat. Despite, or perhaps because of, the data revolution (or evolution?), and growing global systems of electronically mobile information, genuine education is overlooked. Little or no value is placed on learning, or the will to do so. Culture, apparently, is expected to prove its worth, or take a hike. (Just look at the current state of the British film industry.) In a world where big business squeezes out the little guy, and creators are totally subservient to producers, how can writers hope to succeed? The SF scribes, in particular, may be faced with obsolescence. The usual questions of the genre may be deemed answered now that the Millennium has arrived. SF might be left asking not 'what if...?' but 'what now?'
Although it can be said that when it comes to sheer adaptability and longevity, science fiction has no literary competition, the genre's constantly challenging attitude and its forever questing nature, does alienate some, and attract the derision of many - even in the face of commercially successful adult themed SF the genre is still viewed by certain influential bodies (and the mass audience to a point) as day-dreamy juvenile material. And yet it survives all this. But can SF really accommodate existence in exile from its touchstone of modernity? Will the genre cope with and embrace any number of changes brought about by the Millennium? The doomsday clock is ticking... on and on, beyond infinity.
Is the outlook for SF survival really all that gloomy? If there's to be any chance of a place for SF literature in the decades ahead, we have to protect it now. That means supporting those who toil in the background, in backrooms, and the underground - the still, largely, regretably 'undiscovered country' of the small press. Fresh forms and styles are tended to therein, and their further development is actively encouraged. Many new magazines flourish in that guileless, nursery environment, out on the just-winging-it fringes of the dog-eat-dog commercial markets, and if you're after something different to the wholesale brand names clogging up those High Street shelves (and what true SF enthusiast isn't?), then the small press is certainly the place to look.
It may well be unpredictable in format and frequency. There is, admittedly, a lot of mediocre fiction to be found there. But, it's the only functioning proving ground - to which hopeful SF authors can turn, to practice their craft and refine storytelling ability. The only place where talent can become skill. Those big name-above-the-title authors whose works line the walls of bookshops, all once struggled to find an outlet and get published. They had to start somewhere. Yesteryear's pulp magazines have become today's small press. And this may be where the future of SF lies - if there's to be one for it at all...
Is science fiction, like its burned out mutant offspring, cyberpunk, heading for an early grave? Crushed under the Millennium's wheels of change? Only time, as the hoary old cliché goes, will tell...
revised version of article previously published in Strange Adventures #38 - April 1992
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