Set in a not-so-distant future besmirched by runaway technology and the illusion of intimacy as a commodity one can purchase, Alexander Weinstein’s widely-acclaimed short story collection Children of the New World is an intense reading experience not for the feint of heart. While the prose is both lyrical and simple, the dystopian subject matter explores the many ways that our fears about technology can – and will – come to fruition.
Is technology capable of rendering our existence meaningless? What if we had access to any experience we wanted without having to actually risk experiencing it? Everything would be sanitized and safe, customized for our personal preferences, but would we still be human? Through his collection of thirteen stories, Weinstein asks readers to grapple with these questions in uncomfortable and oftentimes graphic ways, because the “new world” is, in true dystopian fashion, a desolate personification of our culture’s worst anxieties in the Internet age.
Ultimately, our fears about technology are fears about ourselves; humans invent, build, and utilize the technology. Machines do not manifest themselves. That we’re simultaneously capable of building life-altering devices while being dangerously seduced by them serves as the core tension of the stories. We profit off the destruction of our own planet. We are made irrelevant by the robots we’ve built. We have devised a new way of life without any accompanying ethics. We’re horrified and fascinated at the same time, and addiction consistently triumphs over fear.
This is particularly true of the maladjusted narrator in “The Cartographers,” one the collection’s strongest short stories. Adam obsessively works as a memory maker, selling vacations to clients who have never left the country and rough histories to middle-class artists in need of a marketable backstory. “We thought of ourselves as mapmakers,” Adam muses romantically (23). After a chance encounter with Cynthia, a skeptic antagonistic towards his work, Adam begins to question the value and morality of his job.
Weinstein expertly portrays the contradictions inherent in a technology-driven society by portraying Adam as someone cognizant of the affect his work has on his brain: “The problem with testing memories was that after enough beams, it became impossible to recognize the difference between authentic memories and beamed ones” (29). Adam knows his work is impacting his mind and his relationship, but the love he feels for Cynthia is not enough of an incentive to quit.
The concern is a familiar one for readers in 2017, for how often do we read articles warning us that our increasing reliance on technology will result in fewer authentic experiences? When dining at a restaurant, we risk our food spoiling so we can perfectly photograph it for Instagram. We hike to the top of mountains just for the selfie. We plan wedding receptions to match popular Pinterest posts. We’re so fixated on our life looking as good as everyone else’s that we fail to sufficiently live it, and Weinstein’s stories are simply an extension of this phenomena.
“Openness” features Andy, a young man who starts a relationship with Katie in a New York City dominated by a futuristic Facebook where flirting on street corners and public transit is done digitally. Andy sees Katie, decides he likes her, and “winks” her to initiate a text-based conversation. A product of a rough childhood, Andy sees technology as a form of protective armor, and he feels naked when forced to relinquish it for a visit to Katie’s childhood cabin in rural Maine: “Being offline reminded me of my life back home before layers existed, when I’d lived with my parents in Ohio, a miserable time that technology helped bury” (191). Together, Katie and Andy attempt to achieve openness, allowing each other to fully access the other’s stored memories, but this is too invasive and ends their courtship. Is this “openness” even intimacy? If we continue posting only the most curated versions of ourselves on social media, it just might be.
As it turns out, the “new world” isn’t so new. Familiar concerns litter Weinstein’s collection – the loneliness caused by a digital world, pornography’s effect on consensual sex, and the digital exploitation of children – but children are, as the title indicates, the author’s focus. Since children have no claim to the problems of the world they’ve inherited, they are thus its ultimate victims. Untested technology and unrestricted corporate power will influence their lives in ways the adults do not understand, reminding readers that they don’t know how children who grew up playing on the iPad during every meal will fare as they transition into adulthood, nor can they foresee the sacrifices children will have to make to mitigate environmental damage previous generations elected to ignore.
In the collection’s titular story, “Children of the New World,” an aging, childless couple escapes to a simulation where their avatars soon discover they are going to be parents: “The FAQs informed us us we could remove an unwanted pregnancy as easily as dragging a file to the recycle bin, but we were curious” (85). Soon, they had two virtual children they loved and cared for. Domestic bliss can only last so long, even online; like their authentic counterparts, curated, unreal experiences soon start to leave something to be desired. In search of sexual adventure, the couple starts visiting the city of sin – imagine a digital Red Light District – where they indulge only to learn later that doing so caused them to contract a virus. The virus starts affecting their home and family, with snake oil salesmen appearing in their house offering penile enhancements. In order to get rid of the virus, the couple must reboot and lose their children; a support agent tells the concerned narrator: “‘If it’s any consolation, they won’t feel a thing; they’re just data'” (91). The narrator and his wife, though, their children are more than data. Technology has expanded the human capacity for empathy, and their loss is a tragic one that leaves the couple seeking treatment at a support group.
Weinstein’s characters may inhabit an inauthentic world, but they are more than capable of compassion and still experience pain, desire, and loss – even if they can’t quite overcome the allure of the web.
In an era where newborn babies are reduced to props for “likes” on Facebook and Instagram, tastelessly posed in metal buckets or wooden crates with elaborate costuming, and ever-younger girls encouraged to adopt an exaggerated form of cartoonized femininity to compete in beauty pageants, that the narrator of “Heartland” contemplates selling photos of his children to pornography websites doesn’t sound implausible. After all, what’s an additional level of exploitation, considering the narrator had just taken his son to participate in an online trivia competition for the chance to win a vast sum of money? Jobless and trapped in a marriage reduced to petty spats, the narrator sees his child as his meal ticket, but draws the line at knowing pedophiles will pay to look at photos of his kids in a bathtub. In an exchange one doesn’t need a fictional world to imagine happening, the narrator scolds his friend who suggests the idea: “‘There’s no fucking way I’m selling my kids’ photos to porn'” (51). Is there a difference between using your children for validation and using them as income? Can one easily lead to another?
Child exploitation is not the only moral stain upon the new world’s fabric. Xenophobia, misogyny, racism, classism are also alive and thriving. There are no female characters in Children of the New World who exist outside either sexual or familial contexts: women are objects of pleasure, dissatisfied wives and girlfriends, or daughters. This literary treatment of women strikes too familiar a chord in 2017; for example, the word mush, meaning “heterosexual intercourse wherein the female has her face pressed firmly against a surface (usually floor) in a forceful manner” (58), enters the future lexicon in 2023 but sounds grotesque enough to exist today. In the collection’s opening story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the narrator tries to repair his Chinese daughter’s lifelike cultural companion robot only to be met with sneers from the new world’s “doctors,” whom he knows might let their biases impact their care.
Greed erodes both the moral and natural landscape; if technology is Weinstein’s preeminent concern, corporate gluttony is his second. Adam’s boss in “The Cartographers” seeks to increase profits by adding commercial advertisements to memories clients purchase, while professors in “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution” debate who ought to exert control over another’s consciousness. But this discussion extends to life outside the grid.
The future described in “Heartland” isn’t a techno-wonderland; rather, the landscape has been exploited to extinction by corporations, leaving Indiana with nothing but “pits, abandoned and stinking” (53). The metaphor may not be subtle, but it’s still effective. Dystopia is most haunting when its world is ours taken the way of slippery slope arguments, and in this regard Weinstein succeeds immensely. In “Ice Age,” characters must navigate a planet completely buried in snow, another imagined (but entirely plausible) effect of climate change taken to its extreme. In this world where survival requires relentless work and sacrifice, the children no longer have childhoods; not because their images are posted to pornography websites, but because “their day is filled with sawing wood, skinning moose, learning to hunt: the work of survival” (210).
In the end, it doesn’t matter if the planet implodes or decays due to climate change, because in the hyper-digital age, no one is building meaningful partnerships, marriages, and families, namely because no one is having physical sex. Characters instead choose to visit nightclubs with names like “Best Live-Ass club” and build avatars with a “six pack and three dicks” placed in unusual locations on the body for maximum digital pleasure. Like everything else, eroticism is reduced to a commodity with no long-term utility. Like drug addicts who must increase their dosages, those trapped in the grid must seek out increasingly bizarre [read: inauthentic] carnal pleasures to satisfy the desires technology has told them they are more than entitled to.
In Weinstein’s realistically fictitious world, desire itself has lost all intrinsic value; desire, is something simply to be satisfied even though humans always crave the proverbial more. So the stakes to fulfill said desires become higher and higher until they are no longer sustainable, which forces technology to progress at such a rapid rate that law and morality cannot keep up. Children of the New World is a remarkable collection, and although not every story hits its mark, it manages to leave an indelible impression on readers by forcing them to confront humanity’s darkest corners without veering completely into fatalism.
I Would Recommend To: anyone who has binge-watched Black Mirror on Netflix.
Published: September 2016 by Picador
Related Readings: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Circle by Dave Eggers
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