About a decade ago, the author Alexander Weinstein suffered an unexpectedly affecting loss: His computer died, taking with it years of his creative work. “I was deeply upset,” says the 39-year-old writer and instructor. “Around the same time, a lot of my students were getting iPhones, and talking about how much they loved themsaying that, if they lost anything, please dont let it be their iPhones. I got the sense that we were all starting to forge this very deep emotional connection with technology.”
Weinstein’s response came in the form of a short story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” which is now the first entry in his future-shocked, surprisingly moving, thoroughly excellent new speculative-fiction collection, Children of the New World. “Yang”which, like many of the pieces in the book, takes place between 2o to 30 years in the futurefollows a young middle-class couple whose aloof robot-son has suddenly gone on the fritz (they know something’s wrong when, one morning over breakfast, Yang repeatedly bangs his head into his Cheerios). Their relationship with the mechanical kid had always been a bit clinical, almost perfunctory: “He came to us fully programmed,” notes the narrator-dad, “[and] there wasn’t a baseball game, pizza slice, bicycle ride, or movie I couldn’t introduce to him.” But when faced with the option of tossing him into the scrap heap, the loss is almost too much to bear; for a robot, Yang had become awfully life-like. Eventually, they bury him in the backyard, but stick his voicebox in the living room, just to hear him talk.
Children of the New World is full of tales like thisdeeply empathetic, sneakily funny, and clearly concerned about the ever-fuzzing line between our minds, our hearts, and our gadgets; it’s a little bit Kafka, and a little bit Kaufman. And even though the future Children imagines is occasionally pushed to the brink of bleaknessWeinstein wrote it over the last decade, a period that saw such disasters as the BP oil spill and the Flint water crisisthe book is hardly a collection of tsk-tsking, glum parables. Instead, it roots for its characters, and its readers, by presenting a dystopia that’s perhaps inevitable, yet also conquerable.
“These are warning stories that say, ‘Please, lets not head into this future’even though, in many ways, we seem to be going there already,” says Weinstein, who lives in Michigan, and who serves as director of the Marthas Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. “That said, my hope is that they carry the hopefulness of humanity. A lot of my characters are good people trying to discover what it means to be human.”
The Future of Monkind
One of the reasons Children of the New World is so unsettling is because the yet-to-be society it envisions feels dangerously close to our ownespecially when it comes the book’s made-up technology. Like the all-too-human A.I. in Spike Jonze’s 2013 drama Her, or the subconscious-spelunking devices in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi thrillerStrange Days, the gizmos in Children, and their various applications, feel just a few generations or iterations away from what we already have. In “Fall Line,” a former skiing champ, felled by a brutal injury, recounts the years he spent broadcasting first-person footage of nearly every moment of his day, from the slopes to the bedroom, via a contact-lens camera. “Children of the New World,” meanwhile, deals with parents who immerse themselves in a virtual-reality world where their children exist solely as digital creationsand who must decide whether or not to “delete” the kids after a virus tears through their cyber-constructed world. And “Moshka” follows a likably naive world-traveler who seeks out a synthetic form of enlightenment; he finds it in a run-down back-room joint in Nepal, where he’s seated in an old beauty salon chair, and hooked up to a consciousness-altering device powered by “gutted laptops, stray mice, and a cluster of computer towers interconnected by cables.”
It’s already an extension of where we’re headed, since the rewards system that Pokmon Go works on tells us that we should always be on: ‘Even if you go for a walk in the woods, make sure you have your phone, because there might be a Pokmon out there.’ That replacement of the natural world with the wireless online, streamlined world is what I’m talking about in these stories.Alexander Weinstein
That mix of high- and low-tech gives Children an extra layer of plausibility; even when the stories tilt toward absurdity, they feel grounded in some sort of reality, no matter how far-off. But while Weinstein notes that he’s on his iPhone just as frequently as the rest of us, he’s not a hardware-savvy futurist. “I dont do a lot of research,” he says. “Really, the research comes from my own failings at using technology. Ill notice the awkward mistakes Im making on my phone, and that will lead to me thinking, ‘Ah, maybe some kind of implant would make this easier.’ And my friends know that I write these stories, so they send me horrifying news links about new skin-grafts, or putting eye-screens in contact lenses, and those will often give me new ideas.”
And, for a book about the ease with which we give ourselves over to such technologies, the release of Children is especially well-timed: Earlier this summer, Weinstein watched as millions of people around immersed themselves in the world in Pokmon Go, with some players getting so wrapped up in the game, they wound up falling down ditches or crashing their car into a tree.
“It was wild,” says Weinstein. “All of a sudden, you had these metaphors for zombiehood, with whole streets full of people wandering around, looking at their phone. It’s already an extension of where we’re headed, since the rewards system that Pokmon works on tells us that we should always be on: ‘Even if you go for a walk in the woods, make sure you have your phone, because there might be a Pokmon out there.’ That replacement of the natural world with the wireless online, streamlined world is what I’m talking about in these stories.”
A New Hope
One of the closing entries of Children of the New World is the jarring “Rocket Night,” a four-and-a-half-page, almost giddily dark account of an annual elementary-school event in which students, parents, and teachers place the least-popular kid in a rocket, and then blast him or her into space. The story’s notable not only for its casual, almost comically banal portrayal of group-think gone awryits length and leeriness make it a clear descendent of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”but also because it’s one of the few stories in Children in which people turn against each other, and in which mood and setting shift from dystopic to nearly post-apocyalptic. For the most part,Weinstein’s characters are either trying to redefine, or even reclaim, their humanity, despite having nearly surrendered to technology. The skier in “Fall Line” eventually takes to the mountains again; the grieving couple in “Children of the New World” join a support group for other parents who’ve suffered loss in the virtual world. The men and women of Children may remain beholden to their contraptions, but they’re increasingly dependent on each other, as well.
“They all want to create community or family connections again,” Weinstein says. “In that way, I don’t think the book is dystopian as much as it is hopeful. Kindness, love, and compassion are still very necessary components in what it means to be human.” And, in a book like this, they’re also reminders that, no matter how crazy or terrifying the future might be, at least we’ll stare it down together.