Buckle up before you read Alexander Weinstein’s “Children of the New World,” a collection of 13 wonderfully literate short stories about how we may live in the near future and beyond.
Mr. Weinstein, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, will read from and discuss his book on Thursday, June 29, at 7 pm at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven.
He has long been a published writer, but Mr. Weinstein’s debut collection of short stories was among the New York Times’ Top 100 books in 2016, and won similar accolades from Google and NPR. The praise is well-earned. These stories tell me that our prospects aren’t pretty, but they are plausible, based on what we know about the digital world to which we are wiring ourselves — and the beating our planet is taking.
Mr. Weinstein’s stories describe lives that are possible based on logical conclusions. All the stories are closeups of real people attempting to live successfully several decades or more in the future. Most of them lived in our world, so we have context and we can see that future from where we are standing. A lot of it doesn’t feel fictional.
That’s the beauty of this book. We can read Orwell, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, and the rest, and feel comfortable because the work involves talking animals or is light years away. Mr. Weinstein presents a future that is right in our grill, so to speak.
“My work is speculative fiction, one foot in science fiction, the other in the tradition of literary realism. Stories about humanity, but tweaking them a little bit,” he told The Times in a phone interview from his family home in Aquinnah, where he has summered since he was a tot. Mr. Weinstein teaches creative writing at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich., in the winter.
“I looked at a lot of the technology we have, and the bumbling attempts many of us make in using them. I thought of the ‘what ifs’ 10 years out from today, and about the alienating effects of technology. We all struggle with loving and sharing in our lives. Technology helps make the metaphor [in those struggles],” he said.
He recounts stories of people living in two environments. Most involve brain-wired people living in a variety of digital modes in which it is difficult to determine what is real, what is Memorex, and which mode the characters prefer.
Several stories follow survivors of environmental collapse in the American Midwest, one story after the big thaw and the other following the new ice age. No polemics, just matter-of-fact reporting on daily lives.
The book’s title, “Children of the New World,” is taken from a short story in the collection that offers a poignant cautionary note that virtual reality, though wondrous, is not enough. The narrator and his wife are childless when the New World is ushered in, offering users the opportunity to create the lives and environments they seek. In this case, the childless couple desire a lovely home and two children. They create both by logging on and following the tutorials provided.
Mary becomes pregnant in their online lives, and daughter June is followed by son Oscar, and life is good. But the digital world has ugly surprises, as most of us have learned, and malware and pop-ups send a stream of scary home invaders into their white-picket-fence digital world. The online support tech delivers the bad news: Their system is corrupted and must be rebooted, deleting the home, the children, their virtual lives. The ensuing pain and suffering is real and human, a theme reprised in “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the book’s opening story.
Now here’s part of the power of the author’s work. In “Children,” the narrator and his wife aren’t living in a Star Wars future but a future a little while from now. They remember shopping at their version of Cronig’s and gassing up the car. As we read this tautly drawn story, we know we can virtually design a home and tour it in 3D today, while we raise kids enraptured by Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. So, yeah, I can see that as possible.
In “Ice Age,” the concluding story in the book, Gordon and Tom are just a couple of middle-class Midwest guys who live in the Detroit suburbs and toil away for their families.
Actually they live above those suburbs, now covered with 10 stories of ice and snow from the new Ice Age. Their daily toils don’t involve working at carpentry and an auto supply store anymore. They hunt wildlife with bows and arrows to feed the family back at the igloo. They are survivors of the great ice slide, and their jobs, their suburban ranches, and all their stuff is down there, under 100 feet of ice.
Mr. Weinstein draws human characters that we recognize, and his rendering makes one wonder how we would handle the situation that Tom and Gordon are in. He provides authenticity to the shaping of a potential future world dimly seen today. His characters remind us that we are already hardwired with what we call our souls.
“Children of the New World,” paperback from Picador/MacMillan, © 2016 by Alexander Weinstein, $16 from Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven, and online.