Children of the New World
Children of the New World is a stellar book of short stories by the American writer Alexander Weinstein, that shows how science fiction is arguably the essential genre for our age. The stories here present various futures, rooted in virtual technologies and climate change, with such urgency and humour that indulging in any other genre seems tantamount to escapism.
Weinstein’s stories, in the tradition of the work of Stanisław Lem or Margaret Atwood, are thought experiments, designed to provoke and entertain. However, they are also pointedly contemporary and thus, while often patently parodic or surreal, are utterly germane to our life today.
In “Migration”, for instance, a father counsels his rebellious son against riding a real bike rather than a virtual one: “It’s dangerous out there.” We learn that he and his wife still have a strong relationship, despite their virtual sexcapades: “After fifteen years of marriage we still manage to have sex with each other’s avatars two to three times a week.” By the story’s end, father and son find themselves playing with a ball outside an abandoned mall in a world empty of people, the online world having brought an end to physical commerce. Meanwhile, nature has been busy recolonising the Earth. Father and son witness a “V of birds” crossing the sky, and hundreds of deer, “ears extended, every muscle rigid beneath their fur”. It is an uncharacteristically utopianist ending. In “Moksha”, instant enlightenment and freedom from “Western pain” can be purchased in Kathmandu via a contraption resembling a hairdressing chair with a blow-dryer cap. The “hit” is short-lived, though, and the pilgrims become addicts. In “The Cartographers”, the manufacturers of virtual memories become hooked on their own products and lose all sense of themselves. The connection between technology and escapism, and technology and addiction, is made in a number of stories, which also recall 1960s drug counterculture.
This is writing characterised by plot, economy, wit and interest in ideas. Balancing the stories with a first-person male narrator – ubiquitous in contemporary short fiction by young writers – there is welcome narratological risk-taking in stories such as “Excerpts from The New World Authorized Dictionary”, a list of future words and phrases, showing how powerfully and disturbingly our lingua franca reflects our world. It is startling that this is Weinstein’s first book, given how ambitiously and impressively it speaks of our future. KN
Text, 240pp, $22.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "Alexander Weinstein, Children of the New World". Subscribe here.