Not all writing is of a piece. There is no guarantee that a writer who is good at one genre will be good at another. An essayist might have no talent for short stories. Though song lyricists and poets seem to do something very similar, that something isn’t exactly the same for each and there is remarkably little crossover as Steve Allen amply demonstrated six decades ago by reading rock lyrics as though they were poems. A writer of science textbooks might write terrible novels. A skilled novelist might be an uninspired screenwriter, e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some authors can and do cross genres successfully. One has to grant the novelist Faulkner his success with the screenplays To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Gore Vidal wrote well in any format. But they are more the exception than the rule.
So, I had no high expectations for a scifi novel written by Albert Brooks, whose thoughtful comedic screenplays I’ve enjoyed in the past. Yet, he transitions pretty well in 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. Brooks originally envisioned 2030 as a screenplay but decided the fx budget alone would be bank-breaking, so he opted for a novel instead.
Since before I was born, doomsayers have warned that “our children” would face dire consequences from the ever ballooning national debt. Every now and then the US federal debt becomes a major political issue but the issue always fades as disaster fails to materialize for one generation of children after another. Yet, consequences, if not a disaster, are at least being felt in the current generation. As interest on the debt takes an ever larger share of the budget, the federal government simply doesn’t have the money to do what politicians of either the Right or the Left want it to do. The military is smaller than at any time since the (short-lived) near-total demobilization after WW2 while new infrastructure and social spending stalls for lack of cash. Tax increases, even if politically possible and whether narrowly or broadly based, cannot possibly keep up with already built-in entitlement and pension commitments and with growing interest on the existing debt. Elected officials of any ideology have surprisingly little room for real maneuver; they can make a difference only at the margins and usually for the worse. All of this has an impact on the economic circumstances and prospects of Millennials. The US is far from alone in this self-imposed bind.
In Brooks’ 2030, federal debt service alone eats up 3 trillion dollars per year – a number which might not be far off from reality. Meanwhile, in this near-future, cancer and many ailments of the elderly are at long last defeated; this sounds wonderful but it means that the elderly population grows and grows with Boomers (my people) in particular likely to hang on to 120 while chewing up ever more health care expenses, social security, and whatever remains of the federal budget – and by their numbers dominating political power. Effectively, young people pay for all this with low wages, enormous private debt, high taxes, mandated purchases, and a far lower standard of living than their parents and grandparents. The young begin to respond violently; extremist youth groups and “lone wolves” launch terror attacks against the old. There already was no money to deal with ordinary expenses and the effects of climate change, but when the Big One hits California, as it will one day, doing 20 trillion dollars in damage and collapsing insurance companies, federal leaders are in a quandary. China is the only country with the resources to lend that much money but is not willing to do it. Brooks presents all of this via several parallel stories about individuals. Primary characters include a young woman struggling with her father’s expenses, a rich (and therefore personally unaffected but ideologically committed) young terrorist, a billionaire who made his fortune on health cures for the old, an assisted suicide doctor, lobbyists for AARP, a survivor of the California ‘quake, and the President and his staff. I might be making this sound like a polemic, but it is not. The stories are told with Brooks’ characteristic low-key fatalistic humor. He ends (very mild *spoiler*) on an upbeat note, which is probably the screenwriter overwhelming the novelist: Hollywood endings and all that. But that is a minor complaint – if indeed it is a complaint – about an otherwise well-executed scifi novel.
Boomers are no strangers to the Generation Gap. We invented the term. We were ungenerous to our parents in the 1960s, and overly sappy when we started to lose them in in large numbers in the 90s. Our parents grew up in the Depression and fought the Second World War; they’d had enough excitement from those experiences and wanted nothing more than security, a Cape Cod home with a picket fence, and a Ford in the driveway. The radical social changes (very much including shifts in gender roles) of the 1920s-40s not only stalled but were reversed in the 1950s. We didn’t cut them much slack for this. The Boomers’ 60s rebellion against it was very much needed, but we failed to acknowledge just how much our rebellion was financed by the surpluses created by our parents. We haven’t left similar surpluses to the generations after us, so if they aren’t angry at us perhaps they should be. Millennials expect a lower standard of living than we had – the first time this has happened in US history. Whether this leads to the sort of conflicts in Brooks’ 2030 remains to be seen. They are not inevitable, but they are credible.
The Zimmers – My Generation