Children of the New World, Alexander Weinstein’s debut short story collection, depicts a terrifyingly plausible future only decades away: the planet is devastated, online communication continues to displace physical contact, almost every human experience has been commoditized, and virtual reality and biotechnology have extended the possibilities of love and sex in frequently questionable ways.
Most if not all of these themes are, of course, clichés of speculative fiction, but Weinstein is such a mesmerizing writer that he infuses old sci-fi tropes with emotional life. The first story in the collection, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” is about a suburban family’s relationship with the android they purchased as a sibling to their adopted Chinese child. Weinstein takes the old question, “Can you love a robot?” and weaves in the moral dilemmas inherent in making a purchase and in valuing some lives more than others, to craft an improbably short, frequently grotesque, ultimately moving story that answers the question with a qualified but firm yes.
The second story, “The Cartographers,” deals with another sci-fi cliché, implanted memories. But Weinstein handles it masterfully with his excellent writing and rich imagination, constructing a fictional future in which implanting memories is a nascent industry fraught with ethical issues: is giving someone memories of experiences they’ve never had (a vacation to Cuba, a happy childhood) inherently wrong? Even if you think it’s not, does including advertisements in fabricated memories cross a line? Weinstein works this material compellingly when depicting the confused consciousness of a man who learns some of his memories are false: “I scrolled through my phone, my grip sweaty and slippery, until I found a number listed as HOME… Did I have parents? Were they both still alive?” And then the author delivers an emotional sucker punch conveying the anguish that accompanies this character’s discovery that his most cherished memories never happened, but nevertheless they’re still part of him:
You can never get rid of memories, you can only try to ignore them… I’ve never… swum in the Caribbean, and I’ve never made love with Cynthia. All the same, I keep working on my letters to her. I tell her I can still remember her skin against mine as we slept… and the sound of her voice telling me, over and over, must how much she loved me.
The future Alexander Weinstein creates for us is further darkened by the economic instability that plagues so many of his characters: a family’s one chance at a decent future might be getting their babies roles in diaper commercials; desperate suburbanites sell their topsoil to rapacious landscaping companies; promising athletes wreck their bodies in extreme sports television programs and become injured has-beens. Everyone’s a few hours away from the big score, or from finding themselves on the street.
Many of the stories in this collection end with a character abandoning the deadening world of constant exposure to virtual reality and other media for love and contact with another human being. The shift is quite effective and moving in a story or two, but not after it occurs often enough the reader starts to expect it. This thematic repetition could have been avoided by saving some of these short pieces for a later collection. And at times Weinstein is guilty of imaginative overreach that ruins a scene. Speculative fiction is a difficult, delicate art. Some details can make a fictional world seem fantastical or futuristic but still real. Others can render that world completely ridiculous. “Migration” begins as a satisfyingly bleak short story in a wired society committed to lifeless convenience. I was emotionally engaged with this world and its characters until Weinstein went too far in a scene where a professor has online sex with a student: their avatars are endowed with multiple sexual organs. Lines like, “[she] rips the collar around my shoulders, revealing the erection in the middle of my chest” and “She unties her own trench coat, and…I see the vagina beneath her right breast” aren’t sexy or funny—they’re just ludicrous.
Weinstein is a fearfully prescient writer, and his stories are compelling depictions of people like ourselves, struggling in a future that’s almost here.