The benefit of growing up as a science fiction junkie is that the weird turns and twists in the story of the world don’t surprise me too much.
Sure, I’m shocked, appalled, disappointed, amused, bemused, scared, nervous, and kinda bummed out sometimes, but not surprised.
The phrase “the new normal” was bandied about quite a bit early on in the pandemic, way back in those heady, terrifying days of early 2020. Google trends shows the use of the phrase spiked in April of last year, to a level four times higher than at any point in the preceding several years.
It acknowledged that COVID was so disruptive, so outside of our recent experience, that there was no going back. We could only go forward, and find some new normal on the far side of the pandemic.
The term itself was a question, a plea for clarity.
Would office workers all stay home? Would schools and universities embrace virtual learning? Would there be a mass exodus of city-dwellers seeking the (perceived) safety of small towns?
Some of those things happened, to a certain extent. (It turns out that while some college lectures might work fine via Zoom, it’s pretty hard to teach a seven year old spelling over a video link.) But while we were waiting for all those things to settle down, a whole lot of other things happened.
I could list all of them – they’d include new vaccines, storms and fires, elections and political upheaval, and so on – but eventually it would start to sound like the verses from We Didn’t Start the Fire, and I don’t want to get that stuck in your head.
We didn’t get a new normal. We just got more abnormal, in new and exciting configurations.
The only thing I’m certain about is that there isn’t going to be a new normal.
There wasn’t really an old normal, either.
I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War, and there were an awful lot of science fiction novels published in the late 1980s that assumed we were still going to be facing off with the Russians in 2100.
Whatever happens for more than a year becomes seen as normal, even if it’s weird, or terrifying, or stupid. The Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, death from above at the whim of some Soviet general or American president having a bad day, that was terrifying. And it was also normal, for about 40 years.
And then everything changed, quite abruptly, and a lot of smart people were very surprised.
They shouldn’t have been. We shouldn’t be surprised about any of this.
The thing about science fiction is, it’s notionally about things that are possible (or implausible but cool, like starships and death rays) but which haven’t happened.
When we’re considering the future, we need to remember that an awful lot of stuff is possible. Some things take place over a longer term, and we can be pretty sure that climate change will still be an issue next year, we’ll probably still be grumbling about taxes, and whoever is premier of Alberta will still be mad at whoever is prime minister in Ottawa.
But normal? No such thing.