The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English

By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson | Go to book overview

Coda
11 September 2001, New York:
Two Y2Ks

Brian McHale and Randall Stevenson


Senses of an Ending

Ending a literary history at the end of one century and the beginning of a new one is arbitrary, but at least it has the virtue of being transparently arbitrary – all the more so when that end and beginning also coincide with the onset of a new millennium. Centuries and millennia are convenient fictions, and using them to frame a history is a way of acknowledging that there is no ‘natural’ place to stop – as there is no ‘natural’ place to start. Developments begun on one page of the calendar continue on the next page, and the conditions prevailing before New Year’s Eve also persist after it. Conversely, thresholds can be crossed at any time, regardless of what the calendar says, and we can find ourselves abruptly in a condition of unheralded newness, for better or worse. The end of the twentieth century, or rather its endings, in the plural, offers a kind of parable of history’s continuities and discontinuities, its lingering sameness and catastrophic newness.

‘Every New Year’s Eve is impending apocalypse in miniature’, writes Zadie Smith in her end-of-millennium novel, White Teeth (Smith 2000: 412). Seldom are they as apocalyptic, in prospect at least, as New Year’s Eve 1999. Computer engineers were predicting widespread failures when computer systems whose internal calendars were designed to work with dates beginning in ‘19__’ tried to roll over to ‘2000’. This ‘millennium bug’, it was predicted, would jeopardise air traffic control and the proper operation of power stations, telecommunications, banking, perhaps even nuclear armaments. The popular imagination seized on visions of modern technologised society grinding to a halt. Survivalists stockpiled goods and weapons, planning to retreat into the hills in expectation of a breakdown of social order. The post-apocalyptic scenarios of living on amid the ruins of the twentieth century, rehearsed so often in science-fiction novels (e.g., Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz [1959], Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker [1980]) and Hollywood films (e.g., On the Beach, A Boy and His Dog, The Omega Man, the Mad Max trilogy), seemed on the verge of coming true.

In the event, the survivalists were disappointed. In the years leading up to what, in computer-era jargon, we learned to call ‘Y2K’, many thousands of programmer man-hours and many millions of dollars were expended on forestalling the millennium bug. Apocalypse was narrowly averted – or so the engineers claimed, and who knew enough to contradict them? A sense of anti-climax set in, coloured by cynicism and resentment: were the catastrophic scenarios merely media hype? Even a marketing ploy? Nothing about Y2K was certain or unambiguous, except that nothing catastrophic happened.

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