Sure, the characters in author Alexander Weinstein’s new collection of short stories, Children of the New World, are living with clones, virtual sex games, technological implants and ecological destruction. But they’re also dealing with the emotional struggles and sacrifices that humans have grappled with for millennia. In other words, they exist in a fantastic, creepy landscape that could be ours in the not-too-distant future. “On that level it’s potentially realism, just 20 years from now,” Weinstein says. “There’s elements of sci-fi, and elements of magical realism and fabulism that play out throughout the collection, but in many ways I also like to think of it as a kind of dystopian literary realism.”
As we further allow ourselves to be infantilized by our amazing gadgets, Weinstein offers a counter-narrative that both warns us about a dangerous path and wallows in this freedom that unlocks immense pleasure and satisfaction. He spoke to Rolling Stone about what it means to raise a child with so much looming just beyond the horizon and still have hope for the civilization.
When I first started reading your stories, I immediately thought: “Oh, this could be a script for Black Mirror.” Why short fiction, and are you going to end up writing for a TV show?
I started watching Black Mirror after I wrote the collection because a lot of people were saying, “You have to see it, you’ll love it.” And it’s true; I find it brilliant. When I saw the show, I thought, “Oh, this is a kind of television that I could write for,” where you’re really creating short, self-contained pieces in much the same way that you would write short stories. The show Humans is amazing as well. I’m really happy to see that there’s this genre of what I’d call Human Future Fiction emerging, and it seems to be issuing the same warning: “Where are we going with this technology? And do we really want this future?”
Obviously, so much is changing so quickly and rapidly since you’ve written the book, was that an issue?
This collection took 10 years to write, and I didn’t fully realize I was writing a collection of speculative fiction until I was probably halfway into it. The first story I wrote, which was the first story in the collection, is “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” It was inspired when my computer crashed, and it took a lot of my creative work with it. I had this really deep emotional connection to my computer, and I was really distraught by its loss.
Around the same time, all my students were getting iPhones, and talking about how much they loved their smartphones. I began realizing that we were having these deep emotional connections with our devices. And that’s where “Saying Goodbye to Yang” came from. That story opened the floodgates to technological satire, and I realized I had a lot to say about this strange new world that we’re inhabiting. And, like you say, everything’s changing so quickly – which has been good for my speculative fiction – though perhaps not as good for our technological addictions.
And that’s where we get into this idea of what’s even going on right now: Augmented reality, and when it starts fucking with our idea of what is real and what isn’t real. This year we had Pokémon Go pop up, and I assume that experience is going to somehow spur you into new ideas. Tell me, as you keep seeing things change, are you coming up with new stories? Or are you going to do something completely different after this?
I know I’m subconsciously already working on a Pokémon Go story. I mean, the whole phenomenon is just so utterly strange. You have grown men walking off cliffs because they’re searching for cartoon monsters. What we’re seeing with technology and virtual reality is a further infantilization of our culture. You can find grown adults all around America launching Angry Birds, crushing candy and playing these little games on their phones.
I think that Pokémon Go, in many ways, is a metaphor for our own emotional and spiritual searches. We’re searching the streets for lost creatures, which are ultimately ourselves, all of us staring at our phones trying to find something meaningful. And we’re going to see further extrapolations of this. I think virtual reality is exciting, but it also frightens me for the future. The fact that you could potentially have virtual puppies and virtual animals in your house, or that essentially we’ll have empty houses we’re sitting in and playing video games on wall screens that don’t exist, is worrisome.
When you add teledildonics into the mix – you know, this emerging technology where you have sex toys that work remotely, either with synced porn or with other users – you essentially have my fiction becoming reality. I think probably in the near future we’re going to see people having virtual sex with one another online – a kind of Facebook of sex. Then we’ll literally be fucking with the real and unreal.
All this new technology is definitely inspiring me to keep working in that genre. And I have some new stories that are probably going to be a third collection. But right now, in my second book, I’m working with magical realism in the style of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. The book is a fictional tour guide to destinations that don’t exist: imaginary museums of longing, art galleries of loss and hotels of love.
There’s a new book out by Anne Trubek about how handwriting doesn’t matter, and it made me think of you, because there’s people saying, “Oh, we’re not going to teach kids how to write, eventually they’re just going to learn how to type and never actually do anything like that.” I wondered if you had any thoughts or feelings as a writer about that, that we’ll just somehow at a young age, immediately start accessing things through screens, or through typing, or through touching buttons or whatever we’re doing at that point.
Yeah, that’s already happening. In my creative writing classes, I have an exercise where students write fictional postcards and then send them out. A lot of students don’t actually know how a postcard works anymore, so I have to teach them that you need to leave this space open for the return address, and a space for the stamp. A lot of times I have to send it for the student because they’re not quite sure what to do with it afterward – which blows my mind! For many students, when we’re doing handwritten exercises in class, their main complaint isn’t about the toughness of the exercise, but that their hand hurts from all the writing. And it’s only been about five minutes of writing.
Some of your stories go into Eastern religions and the way technology gets incorporated with those philosophies, which reminded me how 50 years ago, or maybe even more recently, people began accessing an inner world through Buddhism and mysticism, as well as drugs and hallucinogens and that sort of thing. It seems like in a way, you’ve seen that this is going to change into how people are using… maybe drugs still, but also using technology in some way. Do you think that change is inevitable?
It’s completely frightening! I mean, one of the things that’s so disturbing, rather than heartening to me, is that a lot of the predictions I make in the collection are actually coming true now. Which wasn’t my hope. I was really hoping that these stories would be a warning. Recently my son told me that there’s a virtual drug, which works in many ways like the electronic drug in “Migration” does – with flashing dots on the screen and different lights that put people into an altered state of consciousness. There are already apps that we’re able to download in order to access meditative states much more easily. And I met a woman who’s working on “electronic enlightenment.”
If I’m to be optimistic about this, being able to use an app where you’re meditating for five minutes while you wait for the bus, instead of crushing candy, is probably a good thing. That will likely make us more contemplative, and that’s something we sorely need these days. But on the negative side, I’m afraid that we’ll start disappearing even more fully into our devices, and into these technological experiences rather than learning how to get there naturally. There’s a way that we’ll become electronically dependent on our devices for deeper experiences rather than trusting our own consciousness.
“If I’m to be optimistic about this, being able to use an app where you’re meditating for five minutes while you wait for the bus, instead of crushing candy, is probably a good thing.”
You’ve said before in interviews that these stories often contain cautionary tales. But they do appear difficult to contain optimism at times, since people feel like there is a freedom with technology because now they can explore things that they couldn’t explore before – like fetishes that they are into. Or even in your title story, this couple ends up having an entire family in this virtual world, but then there’s always the dark side to it, right? As you explain in the story, they can remove an unwanted pregnancy like dragging a file to the recycle bin. That sort of ease is also a scary thing, like there should be some struggle.
Yes, and that’s the conflict in many of my stories: This wish to have a kind of technological freedom that people feel deprived of in real life. In “Children of the New World,” the couple gets to re-explore their sexuality as well as their role as parents, which never would have been possible in the real world. And this is a wonderful thing for them, until their avatars bring home a virus. In “Migration,” you’ve got the couple exploring a kind of virtual polyamory as well as taboo fetishes and, in turn, stumbling over all the complications it creates.
So I do think our new technology allows us to express ourselves in ways we previously felt inhibited to explore. We can see this with all the different dating apps out there, especially platforms like FetLife or kink sites, where people can express their sexual interests openly. Yet, each of these technological innovations comes with their own emotional baggage. We have these new emotions we haven’t learned to identify. They’re actually old emotions, but they’re being exponentially heightened by technology. Like the emotion of the “empty inbox,” for example. Or an unliked post, or a dating profile that never gets any hits. This is a kind of loneliness, or isolation or social anxiety that we’ve always had. It’s just being exacerbated by technology.
So you mentioned that you have a child, a son, right?
Yes, Peter, he’s 13 years old.
I suppose as a father, writing a story like “Heartland” – which to me in some ways was the creepiest and most unsettling – is addressing what’s going on between generations and parents and children. Tell me what you were trying to go for: Is it for one generation selling out another, or them not being able to connect? What is your anxiety there?
Interestingly enough, the different parenthood stories weren’t planned. I think the role of parenthood emerged in my stories because of my love of fatherhood and my love for my son. Suddenly I found that I was writing a lot about fathers dealing with sons, and parents trying to raise children. And the anxiety that creeps in, specifically in relation to the Internet and online activity, is a struggle of losing that deep connection with one’s children through their immersion within technology.
For example, my own son is online a lot. He has games that he plays online with his friends, he is up to date with all the different apps, and part of our struggle is that I have to limit that time and ask him to put away his devices so we can reconnect in the real world. Let’s go for a hike, let’s do something out in nature. I see kids becoming less connected to nature and the environment, and much more connected to their devices. So there was a fear, or an anxiety of losing that type of familial human connection with our own children.
The title of the collection, Children of the New World, is also talking about all of us. That somehow we’ve become infantilized by technology and we’re all learning our way through this new world. We all know that experience of trying to show a parent or a grandparent how to open multiple tabs on a computer screen, or explaining to them how their new smartphone works. There’s a real disconnect between generations that can happen because of this intrusion.
The story “Cartographers” stands apart in some ways, it seems like it could be a Charlie Kaufman- or Michel Gondry-type movie–
Cool, thanks – they are two of my favorite directors.
So tell me about the inspiration for that story; how it developed.
It’s really interesting because the seed for the whole technology in that story came from a brief dream I had while I was on an airplane. I’d fallen asleep for 15 seconds, and during that time I thought the overhead light, where it has the symbol for “Fasten Your Seatbelts” and “No Smoking” – I dreamt it was beaming memories to me of the trip I was about to have. When I woke up, I immediately had all the technology of that story readily available to me. So I began writing, though I wasn’t yet aware what the story was going to be about.
At the time, when I was writing this, I’d just gone through a breakup with a woman that I had loved dearly for five years. I was thinking a lot about memories in light of the breakup. Without the other person, those memories can often feel invisible, or like phantoms, like, “Who was this person I once loved? Do they still really exist?” And of course the person exists, but in another way they don’t anymore, they become somebody new with different hopes and dreams. And yet we still hold onto those memories of movies we saw with them, or places we walked together, we’ll walk down a street and suddenly remember that they were right next to us. And so those memories, specifically around love relationships and the loss of those, came afterwards, as I was writing the second and third draft. As I wrote, I realized I was writing about my own heart.
It was also an interesting device to have “Excerpts from The New World Dictionary,” where it kind of creates a bridge between stories, and you’re like, “Oh wait, this is a whole other world that you’re creating, or future.” And it sounds like with your interest in Calvino and Borges, you must be interested in that idea too, of kind of fabricating an alternate reality.
Yes, very much so. And what I like about that “Dictionary” story, as well as “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution,” is that they don’t follow a traditional narrative plot arc. Both of those stories work in a formalist tradition where the plot structure and the conflict isn’t the “Freytag’s Pyramid” model anymore: Neither are based on a central conflict necessarily, especially in the “Dictionary” story. And that’s really interesting to me. How can you break out of traditional narratives?
Like you say, I’m really interested in creating alternate realities – especially in the tour guide book that I’m working on now. I find that through these fantastical worlds, I’m able to use the landscapes as metaphors for the more subtle and hard to pin down human emotions we all experience. It’s as though the settings themselves, because they’re so unfamiliar, allow me to become a tourist within my own subconscious – which is really thrilling as a writer.
Yeah, I get it. Well, some of these stories definitely freaked me out, which is a good thing. Thanks again for that.
[Laughs] Yeah, they freak me out, too. I write these stories, and my intention is that they’re humorous and ultimately optimistic at their core, because while they’re certainly dystopian, I still think of them as hopeful. That’s one of the things I’m grateful for in regards to having these stories out there, which is that it inspires a conversation about technology, social interaction, cybernetic loneliness, and the importance of human interaction, community and the environment. I personally think of the book as a humor-based collection that has hope for humanity within it – that people will read these stories and say, “Oh my God, are we really heading towards this future, and do we want this?”