Kicking 2017 off with a scifi start!
For my first pick of the year, I chose Children of the New World: Stories by Alexander Weinstein. It was a bit of an impulse purchase. I had some money leftover on a giftcard from Christmas, and decided that a collection of short stories might be a good way to ease myself back into daily reading. The cover of the book caught my eye, and on a recommendation from the store staff, I picked it up. What a lovely surprise it turned out to be!
I haven't read so many short stories since college, and it was refreshingly easy to do with my current hectic schedule. The stories average about fifteen pages, with a few that are longer. The settings and content vary widely, though all are tied together with themes of technology and all are set in a hazy near future.
The book opens with two of my favorites from the whole collection. “Saying Goodbye to Yang” and “The Cartographers” both offer glimpses into an accessible future, similar enough to now that it's easy to imagine such a place waiting for us right around the corner of time. “Saying Goodbye to Yang” is a great entry point for the rest of the book. You follow a 30-something father in suburbia, navigating the pitfalls of having an android in the family. Weinstein's skill in this story, and the collection as a whole, is to follow mundane people pursuing mundane goals in extraordinary settings or circumstances. Through Jim's eyes, you see a familiar world complete with parenthood, boring jobs, financial strain, even the irritation of dealing with electronics repairmen, but you also see the unfamiliar, a world in which clones and androids are no longer the stuff of fantasy, but intertwined seamlessly with the mundane.
Yang is a Big Brother, an android designed to mentor and care for children. Jim and his wife rely on Yang to help with their young daughter, who knows him as her brother. When Yang malfunctions, Jim is left trying to figure out how to move forward. Can he be repaired? Can they afford a replacement? Do they want to? Most people have gone through this exact process with a phone or computer. I appreciated that the story was not a meditation on whether or not we should rely on technology the way we do. In Jim's case, it is simply necessary and accepted as such. Rather, it asks how we cope with it when it fails. What are the pitfalls to such reliance? Jim's feelings towards Yang, his attachment to him, are complicated in a way that's easy to imagine. I'm already attached to my cell phone. If it came with a name and a personality, even just a simple one, it would be difficult not to think of it as something more than a mere object. It left me considering the role technology plays in modern life.
“The Cartographers” considers memory and experience in a similar way. What happens when digital experiences become so advanced and seamless that they come to replace real ones? Why buy an expensive vacation to Rome when you can simply buy a memory of yourself touring the Colosseum? Already, we rely on our phones and computers to help us remember things. We use the Internet in order to learn about and explore places that we've never been. VR is taking that experience one step farther. You no longer see the movie or game, you're in it. Currently, VR is not so advanced that it could be mistaken for true reality, but if you look at popular video games, most seem to be going in that direction. We seem to crave graphical realness in our games, so why not also in our VR? If it is possible to create a virtual experience that is nearly indistinguishable from reality, as in “The Cartographers”, then we are forced to question just what authenticity means. Perhaps I didn't really walk through Rome, but if I can remember it's smell, the feel of stone under my hand, if it inspires me in some way, is that not an authentic experience?
Most of the stories operate in this fashion, taking inspiration from a piece of modern technology or culture and transforming it into something exploratory and new. Not all of the stories are as successful as others. In particular I felt that “The Pyramid and the Ass”, “Moksha”, and “Rocket Night” fell a little flat. It's in these that the weaknesses of the collection are most evident. All of the stories follow men who seem to be in their 30's and are either presumably or explicitly white. They are nearly all middle class. At first, and in the best stories, these details makes no difference, but by the end it had started to feel somewhat homogenous. Particularly in the stories that involve an entire family, like “Heartland” and “Children of the New World”, I wondered about the perspective of the mothers and children. It seems like an unfortunate oversight to limit the protagonists to such a narrow scope. There were also a couple of stories, “The Pyramid and the Ass” and “Rocket Night” being examples, where the scifi elements were confusing. None of the stories went into detail about the inner workings of their particular technologies, which I think is appropriate for short stories, but I feel like in the examples listed the lack of explanation made the stories confusing. “The Pyramid and the Ass” seemed to suffer for its short length. I found myself rereading passages and getting confused. The technology to capture souls for rebirth certainly is a captivating subject, but this narrative was lost behind vague ideas of corporate takeover, strange ideas of sex and characters that seemed like caricatures. On the other hand, “Rocket Night” seemed too short. The prose were lovely, but there seemed no central narrative to the story. There was no conclusion.
Complaints aside, the few weak stories are the exception in Children of the New World. The strong ones are good enough to carry the collection. Weinstein's writing is tight and evocative. Stories like “Migration”, “Ice Age” and “Children of the New World” are both entertaining and thought provoking. It was an enjoyable read that I can happily recommend, particularly for anyone looking for an easy entry point into the scifi genre.