Andy and his girlfriend, Katie, are connected to a kind of telekinetic social-media network that links everyone's brains. The system gives them instant access to each other's various "layers" of thoughts, memories, images. After logging off during an off-the-grid weekend in Maine, the couple struggles to connect. "So, I stood there, looking out the living room window," Andy says, "trying to remember how people used to talk back in the days when we knew nothing about each other."
Such is the netherworld of a not-too-distant future evoked in "Openness," one of the stories in Alexander Weinstein's "Children of the New World." In this haunting and prescient debut collection, Weinstein evokes a vaguely dystopian, domestic existence where virtual reality, cybernetics, and social media are second nature. Like today we are disconnected despite being connected. We feel the insidious reach of technology, corporate forces, and climate change tightening into a chokehold. Over 13 tales, he steeps us in a realm of alternate realities close to our own, but each with a thought-provoking twist.
In the title story, a childless couple navigates a virtual life called the New World where they create their own digital offspring, but end up having to perform the heart-puncturing chore of deleting them after they are corrupted by hackers and viruses. In "The Cartographers," a character working for a company that creates synthetic memories has trouble differentiating between scenes from his own life story and fake ones. In some tales, people send text messages by blinking. They suffer from "downloading anxiety" and "AISDD (Autoimmune Streaming Detachment Dysfunction)." In "Heartland,'' they watch reality shows like "Dream Girls" where "frumpy wives" undergo reconstructive surgery "to appear identical" to their husband's preferred movie stars. In "Moksha," a backpacker journeys to Nepal seeking data implants that provide illegal spiritual bliss, only to discover their addictive qualities: "Enlightenment, it turned out, didn't last long."
Rarely does Weinstein, director of the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, tag his futures to any specific date. While the world his characters inhabit is more tech-infused than our own, their personal challenges are timeless. In direct, unadorned prose, the mostly first-person narrators recount their anxieties and fears about raising good kids, providing for families, and forming meaningful, intimate relationships. Husbands and wives still squabble, go to Whole Foods, and take out the recycling.
One of Weinstein's most affecting stories, "Saying Goodbye to Yang," concerns a family that's purchased a robotic Big Brother/babysitter for their daughter. "Without realizing it, I had slipped into thinking of Yang as my own son, imagining that one day he'd be raking leaves for his own wife and children," says the father. "It occurred to me then that Yang's time with us was limited. Eventually, he'd be shut down and stored in the basement." To avoid heartbreak, don't love your androids.
In "Fall Line," narrator Ronnie Hawks faces the puzzle of growing old with grace. "When people still remembered me, I could end a night with a snowbunny," pines the former celeb extreme skier who once made his fortune via "Third Eye," a YouTube-like viral video stream that broadcasts his exploits to followers via special contact lenses. After a life-threatening wipe-out, "I watched my feed drop below a million," he says, and now works odd jobs at ski resort about to be shuttered due to lack of snow. "Ever since the Big Thaw, anyone wanting diamonds needs to but a ticket to Dubai and shred indoor slopes." Nature-in-peril often peeks in at the corners of Weinstein's tech-filled world.
Some of this territory will sound familiar to speculative fiction fans of Philip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson, or lesser-knowns like Emily St. John Mandel ("Station Eleven"), Charles Yu ("How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe"), and Kevin Wilson ("Tunneling to the Center of the Earth"). One senses a hint of George Saunders, without his absurdist whimsy. If Weinstein has a weakness, it's that many of his stories sound the same dire note of a future that's closer than we'd like.
That said, the stories of "Children of the New World" feel cautionary, without being didactic. This is best seen in "Migration," which speaks to our house-bound, online shopping culture. Trucks attacked by refugees deliver food to dilapidated suburbs, whose residents, hooked by VR goggles and bodysuits, "haven't been outside in years." When Max, one family's anti-social game-addicted teenage son, escapes on his bike, the father retrieves him. They see a herd of deer "migrating past the rotten swing set of an English Tudor." If there's any hope, it's that their neighborhood is returning to the earth.
"I want to tell Max that I love him; that he'll always be my son; that somehow everything will be okay again," the dad muses. "But maybe that's too far from the truth."
CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD
By Alexander Weinstein. Picador, 229 pp., paperback, $16