The 13 stories are set in broadly different visions of the future, some of them ravaged by climate change, others considerably more fanciful. (“The Pyramid and the Ass” imagines a world in which Buddhist reincarnation has been co-opted by a corporation named Soul Co. and George W. Bush has been president for 10 consecutive life cycles.) But the common thread is that humans seem to be remarkably unchanged. The emotional susceptibilities and moral quandaries that have ruined and redeemed us throughout history survive unscathed, condemning us to all kinds of high-tech misery. And, sometimes, to moments of enhanced humanity.
One of the more heartening insights comes in the first story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” A father is flummoxed at breakfast when his teenager, Yang, begins jamming his face repeatedly into his cereal bowl for no particular reason. Yang, it transpires, is a robot “Big Brother” purchased by the narrator and his wife to take care of their infant daughter, Mika, adopted from China. Yang’s programmed to help inform his little sister about her cultural heritage, which means he’s prone to offering up facts about ancient Chinese instruments, or the number of li that make up the Great Wall. He’s also liable to malfunction while not under warranty. This means the loss of a babysitter, but also something more complex—the pathos evoked as the family confronts the possibility that Yang may cease to exist is acute. It urges the question: As attached as we are to our devices now, what will happen when they become increasingly, realistically human? What if we truly come to care for them, to treat them as family? The story suggests that empathy, at least, might have the capacity to expand in the new digital age.
Weinstein dedicates the book to his son, and almost all of the stories are shot through with parental anxiety and instinctual fear. In “Heartland,” set in a world where climate change has given Indiana a permanent, rainy fall that “turns our backyards into clay pits,” children have become the ultimate commodity in a community reduced to penury. A father drives his son home after a TV contest where the child has flunked a trivia round and blown the prospect of several thousand dollars. A friend consoles the father by suggesting that he can make substantial cash by “putting photos online … just pictures of them in the bathtub, Cara changing her diaper. Mild stuff, practically family photos.”
The father is repulsed. For him, this represents an uncrossable line, though that day alone he’s schlepped his kid to a ridiculous TV contest where the boy had to eat worms, and filmed him repeatedly falling over in hopes of striking YouTube gold. He’s horrified not by the thought of posting photos of his kids online—an innocent act millions of parents do every day—but of doing so knowing the photos are sold to predators. Deftly, “Heartland” indicts the mothers and fathers who inhabit this troubled future, manipulating their children for financial gain, but also raises uncomfortable questions about the exhibitionistic habits of many contemporary parents.