ONCE upon a simpler time the end of a year meant that a person stood on tiptoe and looked ahead into the far, far distance of the year to come. Twelve months! What a distance that was! - just about as far as the imagination could stretch. But this was when the next state was a serious journey away, and the next country practically belonged to another universe. This was before an aircraft circled the earth without stopping or spaceships shot like a bullet to the moon.
Now at the end of a year - a mere year - journalists write an open letter to the year 2086, as Roger Rosenblatt did in a Time cover story, while a science writer like Nigel Calder comes up with a whole book, ``The Green Machines,'' conceived as a sort of nonfiction novel from the vantage point of the year 2030.
The end of the century, the year 2000, is about as short a time period as any self-respecting future-peerer would settle for on the verge of 1987.
Five-year plans are the twinkling of an eye, obsolete before the printer's ink has dried.
Even politicians - the dinosaurs! - know this. Gary Hart noted, as the year drew to an end, that in 1981 the Labor Department predicted that 71 percent of the work force would be involved in service industries by 1990. Here we are, just turning the page to 1987, and already the figure has reached 75 percent.
What this all means is that history has become a branch of science fiction, leaving us with the giddy motto: The future just passed.
In his history of science fiction, ``Trillion Year Spree,'' Brian Aldiss observes that science fiction, once a cultish fancy, is now ``part of the cultural wallpaper.''
It is not just the astronauts. We all live at the tempo of the rocket, in the time-warp of a space traveler.
The children of the '80s have been weaned on ``Star Trek'' and ``Star Wars,'' on video games and Laser Tag, on E.T. dolls.
Serious novelists like Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and Paul Theroux have been driven to science fiction for their metaphors for today, almost as if they have run out of space for the present.
In the process, science fiction has come to reflect our changing attitudes toward science itself.
In his sci-fi novel, ``Looking Backward'' (1888), Edward Bellamy expressed the 19th-century faith in the Utopian powers of technology: ``If we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained.''
How could he have known he was forecastiang the Age of the Walkman?
Science fiction in the century since Bellamy has described not only Utopias but what Kingsley Amis has called ``new maps of hell.'' It has celebrated space exploration and deplored nuclear holocaust before either happened. It has invented robots and interplanetary aliens and killer vegetables. And in the process it has nearly scared itself to death, ending up by inventing messiahs like Luke Skywalker to save it from its own nightmares.
Over a hundred years ago the Goncourt brothers foresaw a new literature dealing with ``scientific miracles'' in which ``things played a more important part than people.'' Today Ursula Le Guin may not speak for all science fiction writers but she voices the concern of a good many when she writes: ``What good are all the objects in the universe if there is no subject?''
The fear of human diminishment - the fear of dehumanization - has replaced the exultation of push button fantasies.
We are all caught up in one spaceship, if Buckminster Fuller was right, traveling at dizzying speeds toward a destination nobody knows.
A year is nothing. A light-year is nothing. All the barriers have been shattered, all the boundaries are down. Time curves and matter disintegrates before our eyes.
And still, all we have is the present. All we have is the mystery - the possibility - of who and what we are. All we can do on this whirling planet is turn to one another and hold hands and at the appropriate split-second say, ``Happy New Year.''