Humanity’s Dogged Endurance: On Alexander Weinstein’s ‘Children of the New World’

September 15, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 1 5 min read


In his debut story collection, Children of the New World, Alexander Weinstein conjures for his readers a glimpse of the future, or a possible one. Weinstein’s stories evoke a time, not too far off, when humanity has moved ever closer to the Singularity, that moment when human consciousness and technology will merge. Having not yet arrived at the utopia of faster-than-light-speed cognition giddily imagined by futurists like Ray Kurzweil, technology for the characters in these stories, typically appearing as some version of the Internet, or virtual reality, or both, often acts as an intrusion upon consciousness — as opposed to a more harmonious fusion with. What tends to get overlooked by utopian dreamers of Kurzweil’s ilk, what Weinstein chooses to examine head-on is that whatever technologies might emerge, and however they might propel our evolution, there will likely be someone with designs on exploiting them for profit. In the story “The Cartographers,” for example, the main character is a programmer who designs memories — happy vacations, a stable childhood, but darker ones too, like drug addictions and multiple deployments — which customers can upload directly into their brains. The company’s downfall comes when they agree to weave product placements into the fabric of those memories; the decision ends up killing their business, but that doesn’t mean the marketing strategy is dead. As one of the other characters says, “People resist thought ads, but soon enough they’ll be as commonplace as napkins.”

In considering the Singularity, the question is not only to what degree humans will absorb technology, but also to what degree technology will become human — that is, at what point do we accord technological beings the rights of those which we consider to be “like us.” It’s an ethical question, and one that Weinstein grapples with in several places. The opening story, for example, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” concerns a family that has purchased a human simulacrum, a lifelike AI robot, to help them raise their adopted daughter. The robot, Yang, begins to fail and the narrator, who has always let himself believe, crassly, that Yang is merely a piece of helpful technology, begins to recognize, through a devastating and beautiful sequence of scenes, that defining the world from some narrow and arbitrary “human” perspective can often lead to cruelty. The title story, “Children of the New World,” concerns an older couple that conceives and has children in a virtual reality. The initial conception comes early on, as they are still exploring the virtual world. Soon they find themselves enjoying the pleasures of Dark City, a kind of virtual red light district, where their avatars pick up viruses that force them to reboot their virtual existence entirely, wiping away everything, including their children. In both stories we see a society prepared to think of these apparently sentient beings as something less than human, as disposable. Yang is just a robot, the narrator in that story is told, he can be replaced — although the problems of the economy, still with us it seems even all those years in the future, make this fix difficult. When the couple in “Children of the New World” first conceives, they are taken by surprise, and learn that they can “remove an unwanted pregnancy as dragging a file to the recycle bin.” But the characters in these stories are different from those around them. They can’t help feel some affinity towards these nonhumans, where others feel indifference or even revulsion, and that affinity, these stories seem to say, is what really makes them human. With the help of a support group, the couple in “Children of the New World” begins to move towards a kind of realization:

Bill’s advice has helped us get to a place where we can say what happened wasn’t our fault, that we’re not monsters, that our children didn’t die because of us. We were lonely. We were needful. We wanted to feel pleasure again, to be caressed and loved. Our longings were those of humans, not monsters. The real monsters of this world are the hackers and scammers[.]

It becomes clear early in the book that Weinstein is a master of his craft. His stories are each elegantly constructed, many with a startling reveal at the end, both surprising and obvious, which is formally reminiscent of certain Golden Age science fiction stories. The way “The Cartographers” ends (I won’t ruin it here) reminded me structurally of the classic Arthur C. Clarke story, “Star,” in which the reader discovers that the supernova that destroyed a faraway Earth-like planet was in fact the star of Bethlehem. On display is an enviable ability on the part of Weinstein to craft endings. In “Migration,” for example, a narrator leaves the cocoon of his home to go out into the waste of a climate-ravaged Midwest littered with abandoned big box stores to search for his son — the story leads to one of the most transcendent images of a communion with the natural world that I have seen in some time.

coverSome of my favorite stories from the collection are those that present themselves as written artefacts from the future. Like what David Shields and Matthew Vollmer have called “fraudulent artifacts” in their anthology Fakes, these stories come in the form of dictionary entries or a scholarly paper, which allows Weinstein, as in “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution,” to switch registers and foreground the collection’s ethical and philosophical questions concerning our relationship to technology, what it means to have consciousness, and so on. That isn’t to say that in these spaces the book falls over into abstraction. There is still narrative — the story of an attempt by some to opt out of technological integration — and conflict — the rift this causes amongst scientists and colleagues. What I like about “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution” and “Excerpts from The New World Authorized Dictionary,” is that they feel more immersive than the mostly literary first-person stories throughout the rest of the book and, placed strategically throughout the collection, they go a long way towards constructing the atmosphere of Weinstein’s future world, which is one where consumerism has run amok, where the so-called West (still) makes terrorists out of people who aren’t like them. The collection, I think, could have used more stories like these, but that is probably personal preference, and to most readers more of them might have felt like too much of a good thing.

At first glance, there seems to be a real pessimism running through much of Children of the New World — it is telling that the collection ends with “Ice Age,” in which what remains of humanity sits atop 20 feet of snow, the one-time denizens of America’s suburbs reduced to hunting and gathering. Weinstein seems to say that while we can make startling advances in Internet porn, we cannot clean up the mess we’ve made of our environment—but that pessimism is deceptive. There is something in the way the characters in his stories endure despite how bleak their world seems to get that seems hopeful. In the end, though many are left broken hearted — the narrator in “The Cartographers,” or Andy in “Openness,” who loses the love of his life because the technology exists now to let another person completely into one’s consciousness, which it turns out may not be such a great thing — they are also left longing, and in that longing there is a sense that they will go on. No matter how terrifying the world becomes, the parents in these stories go on loving their children, and fight to protect them. And maybe that dogged endurance is what it is to be human. Maybe that is what will save us.

is the author of two collections of short fiction, Lesser Apocalypses and Torture Tree. His work has appeared recently in Pleiades, Boulevard and The Gettysburg Review. He lives in southwest Oklahoma and teaches writing at Cameron University.