John Varley’s 1983 Millennium, a novelization of the 1989 film disappointment of the same name, which was inspired by a Varley short story*, has a tasty core with a problematic shell. The story itself? It’s just plain neat. The characterization? Kind of annoying.
Louise Baltimore runs a time traveling snatch team from “The Last Age” of humanity. Bill Smith investigates aircraft crashes for the U. S. government in 1983. A devastating double-plane crash occurs in California which draws both characters to the event—Bill to identify the cause, and Louise to supervise her distant-future team as they snatch the imminent victims from the doomed planes and dash them to the diseased and polluted Last Age to be preserved until arrangements can be made to transport them to another world and begin humanity anew.
Louise’s future world is one of the most terrifying, yet realistic, glimpses that I’ve read in speculative fiction. Inspired by the eighties’ burgeoning green movement, Millennium’s “The Last Age” is described as a poisonous wasteland populated by shriveling, disease-ridden humans who eventually degenerate into jacked-in brains called “gnomes.” Louise herself is covered in tumors and wrecked limbs, so she wears a skin suit based on a 20th century starlet (or so she says, or she might just be bat-shit crazy and projecting her disillusionment upon herself). Conditioned to her poisoned home atmosphere, she sucks on cigarettes as if they are oxygen tanks when she visits the fresher air of the 1980’s.
Varley tells his story through the alternating first-person narratives of Louise and Bill, whose perspectives provide small windows to mysteries that puzzle the reader until they are viewed from both angles. The revelations to these mysteries are never mind-blowing, but they are interesting, well-paced, and well-plotted. Louise and Bill themselves are a mystery to one another as they discover each other’s significance to the crash, and their interactions serve more as character development than any effort at relationship building. There are some complex romantic overtones, but this ain’t no love story.
But the problems begin with Varley’s characterization of Louise. His effort to portray a strong female protagonist is appreciated, but he confuses feminine strength with jaded masculinity, incidentally endowing Louise and Bill with the same voice. Without their own assigned chapters and dialogue tags, I would not be able to differentiate them. Case in point:
“Okay, Briley,” I said, shouting to be heard over the noise of the chopper. “One, I’m your boss right now, not Keane. Two, I said I wanted security here, and by that I meant keeping the press away from us until we had something to say. You fucked up on that. So three, you’re staying right here…”
“…And guess what? You get to catch the flak when it gets postponed.” I grinned at him… Maybe he’d hate my guts, and maybe he’d get things done just to spite me. I didn’t mind…” (p. 14.)
I said, “Listen up, motherfucker.”
And the Big Computer answered, “What the hell do you want?”
No toadying servomannerisms for me. When I accessed, I wanted to feel like I was talking to something at least as nasty as I was (p. 17 – 18).
Can we desexualize female protagonists without making them sound like Bob Heinlein? That gruff manner automatically recalls Heinlein, and a quick Google search reveals that Varley is often compared to the crotchety grandmaster. Fine, okay, it’s an unintentional homage to your hero, but do both protags have to sound that way?
And, following the fashion of too many male (and female, sadly) authors, Varley imbues his female protagonist with the second-most used, second-most uninspired motivation: a dead child. (The first-most used, first most-uninspired motivation is aggravated rape, because, as we all know, only dead children and sexual assault will move a woman to action. Otherwise, they just sit at home and knit socks.) Not only is this lazy character development, but the dead child angle turns out to be vague and irrelevant. It has little impact on the story because saving humanity in a disease-ridden world should be motivation enough for a passionate crackpot like Louise.
If you can ignore the annoying characterization, Millennium is a cool story with some fresh ideas about an old idea. Using time travel to kidnap the doomed in order to repopulate the condemned future is a clever idea. Varley’s vision of Earth’s Last Age with supercomputers, degenerate humans, and an atmosphere so poisoned it eats holes into the antique wreckage of the missing RMS Titanic feels palpable and probable. (This was published just a few years before discovery of the Titanic wreckage, a misfortune of timing that dates the story—Authors, be careful when you reference significant events. It might wreck the spell you cast.) Millennium culminates in some cyber-religious musings, likening Louise’s spaceship to Noah’s ark, which brings to mind a few disappointing T.V. finales, but Varley pulls it off somehow.
Varley is no SF poseur. He tributes SF’s long tradition of time travel stories by naming his chapters after staples of the subgenre: “Lest Darkness Fall,” “The End of Eternity,” “All You Zombies—,“ etc. And he even borrows the wearisome word “twonky,” previously coined in a 1942 short story written by Lewis Padgett, a pseudonym of Kuttner and Moore, a husband and wife writing team. (I just saw a Twilight Zone episode written by them. It was dumb, but I’m curious about their other works.) “Twonky,” by the way, refers to a time travel paradox, as in, “You dumb idiot, you left your laser gun in 1985. That’s going to cause a twonky!” The word is too silly to fit with the dark humor that permeates the novel, but his wink to the fandom is forgivable.
Millennium is a worthy read for any fan of time travel fiction, and for any Heinlein obsessives who desire to envision their hero in drag. (Actually, Heinlein detractors might appreciate that kind of irony.) It’s a quick, easy read that’s best savored over a weekend, but it’s best to avoid during any kind of air travel. I repeat: Do not read this story about PLANE CRASHES while on a plane. Side effects will include white knuckles, constant seatbelt checking, and involuntary yelps at air pockets.
*As Ian Sales points out in the comments, it’s likely that the novel followed the film, which was based on a Varley short story. And that’s the kind of misinformation that Wikipedia gets you, kids.