Cautionary Tales From the Future

Alexander Weinstein’s collection of short stories, Children of the New World, presents a bleak, brilliant view of humanity fully in technology’s thrall.

Picador / Jessica Spilos / Zachary Bickel / The Atlantic

Of all the things to fear about the future—climate change, sentient robots, the end of avocados—the most culturally salient one isn’t fear itself, but us, ourselves. In 2011, shortly before his acclaimed speculative miniseries Black Mirror debuted on British television, Charlie Brooker wrote an article for The Guardian explaining what inspired the show. Each episode, he wrote, is “about the way we live now—and the way we might be living in 10 minutes time if we’re clumsy. And if there’s one thing we know about mankind, it’s this: We’re usually clumsy.” Dystopia will be the product not of malice, but innate idiocy.

It’s almost impossible not to think of Black Mirror while reading Children of the New World, a remarkable new short-story collection by Alexander Weinstein. Both imagine worlds recognizably like our own, but with an element or two distorted: The horrors that will doom us in the future, they presume, are the same things that plague us now, most of them prompted by simple folly. By turns satirical, jarring, ludicrous, and sad, Weinstein’s stories take present-day anxieties about pornography, cloning, social media, and digital isolation, and follow them to their logical extremes. Thanks to wry prose and humor, the collection is less moody and horror-steeped than similar speculative works. But Children of the New World is no less ominous. Weinstein subtly infuses his cautionary tales about the price of submitting so credulously to technological progress with a sense of inevitability.

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.

Weinstein’s realism about human nature is often tempered by wicked humor. “Children of the New World,” an otherwise moving story about a couple who build a home in a virtual world and are shocked when one of them gets virtually pregnant, includes a brilliantly funny scene in which their “house” gets corrupted by a virus. First a naked man appears in the bathroom, pushing penile-enhancement drugs. Then comes a man from Ghana who bought gifts for the kids and needs the parents’ credit-card number to pay for them. Next, “a woman who looked like my mother transmogrified in the living room, saying she’d been robbed and needed our help to pay for groceries.” The real monsters in the world, the narrator concludes, are “the hackers and scammers, faceless men and women who destroy lives for the sake of testing a virus.” But given that he likely picked up the virus while frequenting the Dark City (a kind of virtual pleasure zone), is he totally blameless? Aren’t we all prone, the story asks, to weakness in different ways, just as we’ve ever been?

Some of the oldest and nastiest human tendencies, “The New World Authorized Dictionary” makes clear,  have blossomed forth in Weinstein’s imagined future. The story, written in encyclopedic form, defines slang words that have entered the popular vocabulary. “Mush” is a verb made popular by a rapper named G-Spot, meaning “heterosexual intercourse wherein the female has her face pressed firmly against a surface (usually floor) in a forceful manner.” A “brainflea” is “a particularly viral promo” that projects itself into the upper right quadrant behind the eyelid and becomes impossible to dismiss. “Orange-blossoms” are bombs able to “liquidate largely populated areas.” Racism and classism, too, seem to be thriving in the New World. In “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the narrator instantly categorizes a man he meets as being the kind to have a bumper sticker saying “We Clone Our Own.”

In zanier moments, Weinstein simultaneously scrutinizes and satirizes the perpetual human desire to find enlightenment, inner bliss, and true love. Several stories feature a kind of brain-web interface that permits communication in non-verbal form. In one, humans can beam imagined memories of experiences they never had into their own brains. In others, they can experience transcendence via data “shot through their crown chakras for five thousand rupees a shot,” or unveil layers of themselves to strangers in near proximity. Perhaps this is an anxiety particular to writers—how redundant will they be when information is simply winked into another person’s brain? But above all, Weinstein is curious about what happens when technology advances so quickly that ethics don’t have a chance to catch up, leaving humans to flounder in situations they haven’t evolved to cope with. In “Migration,” the extent of sexual pleasure online has so surpassed the physical act that men and women have become impotent. Few seem to realize the ramifications.

The shortest work in the book, and the most haunting, is called “Rocket Night.” Over five brief pages, a narrator describes an annual fall event at his daughter’s school, “the night when parents, students, and administrators gather to place the least-liked child in a rocket and shoot him to the stars.” The banal, arbitrary nature of the ritual seems directly inspired by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a short story that appeared almost 60 years ago in The New Yorker in which residents of a village prepare for a festive summer event that ends in the stoning to death of a local resident picked at random. When the story was published, so many upset readers wrote in, convinced it was non-fiction, that the magazine crafted a standard response. The story, editors explained, was intended to show “how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional, and that their targets are chosen without reason.”

But in “Rocket Night” the targets aren’t random. They’re the children who are so typically the victims of other children. Daniel, the boy chosen this time around, is small, lonely, and poor; “the mildewed scent of thrift stores” clings to his corduroys, and he’s prone to chewing the ends of pencils and picking his nose. Unwilling to get into the rocket, he clings to his mother’s skirts, and the other grade-schoolers are summoned to pull him away. The principal assures Daniel’s parents that he has a microphone inside the rocket, which will enable him to talk to himself as he travels through the universe.

The point of Daniel’s mission is unknown—he’s just a pawn in a much larger experiment. In that sense, perhaps, he represents all the children being raised on untested technology, whose power to change us—or not—is anybody’s guess. Pausing to look at the stars, the narrator considers all the unpopular children flying through space imprisoned in their shiny cells: “I imagined them drifting alone up there, speaking into their microphones, reporting to themselves about the depths of the unknown.”