Set in the near future, Alexander Weinstein’s collection of speculative fiction explores our increasingly dependent relationship with technology. The characters in these stories openly have affairs via virtual reality, pay people to create memories for them, give birth to e-children and raise their families in an online simulation, and mourn the loss of outdated androids with sophisticated AI. Readers are left to make sense of this weird, sad, innovative high-tech “utopia” Weinstein has built.
I loved it.
The collection opens with “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” A family of four is eating breakfast when one of the children, Yang, begins banging his head into his cereal bowl. The boy is a Big Brother android, purchased to help raise their adopted Chinese daughter with some cultural awareness that her white parents cannot give her. Yang’s subsequent mechanical meltdown is deeply felt by all in ways they never expected; although he’s a machine, he’s always been one of the family.
It’s the perfect story to set the tone for the rest of the collection. We currently live in a world where people are dependent on technology, but it’s still possible to take social media breaks and “unplug” for a while. In many of these stories, that line between online and offline no longer exists (and if it does, the people who choose to unplug seem eccentric and quaint at best, or self-destructively nonconformist at worst). Because, in some of these stories, there is a real danger to living offline. With people increasingly immersed in virtual reality, the “real world” has fallen into ruins.
More unnerving than those post-apocalyptic stories, though, are the ones that explore our dependence on technology to their (un)natural ends. “The Cartographers” was definitely one of my favorites in this regard. The main character works for a company that manufactures memories. As memory making grows more sophisticated, buyers push for more authenticity, exploring their purchased memories to find “the edge” — the place where those memories stop. The memory makers must then make their products more robust, then take those memories for “test drives” to make sure they’re realistic enough to be sold. It’s a dangerous mental game to play, and it has devastating results.
Children of the New World is one of the most refreshing, exciting collections I’ve read in a long time. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty solid throughout. It’s dark, funny, and sad. It also feels really relevant to our current society even though it’s set in the future. I look forward to seeing where Weinstein goes from here.
Children of the New World: Stories was released in September 2016 by Picador.