Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein
Children of the New World (2016) by Alexander Weinstein was a bit of a mixed bag as a story collection, with a few excellent ones, several decent ones, and several that fell flat. At his best, Weinstein offers up moving examinations of the impending impact of near-future technology, even if many of the ideas will seem familiar.
Example number one is the first story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” as Weinstein starts off with the best of the bunch (a choice that has its advantages and disadvantages). When they wanted a child three years ago, the parents in this tale choose to not go the trendy “clone” route and instead adopted a Chinese baby. Their agency also suggested an android older brother to serve as a “Big Brother, babysitter, and storehouse of cultural knowledge,” the kind of “cultural knowledge,” the narrator tells us, “that Kyra and I could never match … [He] had an in-depth understanding of national Chinese holidays like flag-raising ceremonies and Ghost Festivals. He knew about moon cakes and sky lanterns.” Yang had worked out perfectly until the opening scene of the story where he malfunctions and has to be shut down. The rest of the story follows the narrator’s attempts to repair Yang (including one stop with a racist mechanic) and the family’s growing realization that the malfunction may be “fatal.” One of the best touches in this poignant story is the way in which the tragedy affects the narrator’s relationship with his neighbors.
A somewhat similar and almost as effective plot runs through the title story, where a couple faces the decision to delete their online children after their simulated world becomes overwhelmingly corrupted by viruses. While their pragmatic friends try to convince them the children “won’t feel a thing, they’re just data,” it doesn’t feel that way to the husband and wife, or to the reader.
“Migration” takes a somewhat bent look through the same keyhole, resulting in a story with much sharper edges that details the decaying bonds of a family whose entire life (like everyone else in their world) is lived online. When the husband informs his wife that their problematic teen boy (is there any other kind of teen boy in these stories?), who walks around in a Jason-like hockey mask all the time, asked permission to ride an actual bike in the real outdoors, she replies, “those bikes your parents gave us? That’s ridiculous. We haven’t been outside in years.” Having done their due parental diligence, the two return to arranging their online avatar affairs, he with a student from the internet course he teaches, she with her online gardener, all four employing avatars boasting a plentitude of sexual organs sprouting from all sorts of places (having only one gendered set organs in the usual place just doesn’t cut it anymore).
These are the best of the 13 stories, and make clear the predominant themes running throughout the collection, particularly the corrosive effect of technology on human relationships and parental anxiety, which, even when it is not the main narrative, is almost always hovering somewhere in the background. Two second-tier stories displaying the first but not the second theme are “The Cartographers,” narrated by a young man whose job constructing false memories for sale has a deleterious effect on a budding relationship, and “Openness,” which follows another young man in a new relationship. Here the impeding technology is something called “layers” — a kind of hyped up social media/augmented reality whereby personal information can be readily “scanned” by anyone, with the depth the scan can reach controlled by the individual. This has become so ubiquitous that people rarely speak to one another anymore. As the couple in the story grows closer, how many of their “layers” they’ll reveal, and whether or not they’ll go wholly “open” becomes the driving question.
The society-killing technology theme is broken up here and there. Twice by two short stories, each set in a post-climate catastrophe world, and two more experimental pieces, “Excerpts from the New World Authorized Dictionary” and “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution,” which play off the format of academic works. I didn’t find any of these four to be particularly compelling or evocative. Another short piece, “Rocket Night,” also didn’t work for me, feeling like a quickly sketched mash-up of Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury.
So out of the 13, there were I’d say two excellent ones, a very good one, and two solid ones. Not great, but I’ve certainly read collections with worse ratios of excellent to good to weak. If you do pick up Children of the New World (and I’d recommend a library copy rather than a purchase), I suggest reading it over a period of time. I read it in two sittings and I think the book’s overall impact suffered somewhat thanks to the similar nature of the stories. Read over a longer period of time, they’d probably distinguish themselves from each other a bit better.