The future often looks dystopian to writers of fiction. Since the election, the future seems dystopian in the real world to some people. In dystopian literature, the world of the future is the opposite of utopian. Everything is terrible and unpleasant. Sometimes it is a totalitarian society. Sometimes the world has been destroyed by war or is environmentally degraded.
That doesn’t seem like a world you would want to read about, but we have been reading about these places for a long time. Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels spans from Gulliver’s Travels, through The Time Machine, Brave New World, 1984, Player Piano, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale and Infinite Jest.
You can say that reading this literature is not something we do only out of pessimism, but we view them as cautionary tales. They are the Ghost of Christmas Future come to warn us of what might be if we continue on our current path.
These thoughts came to me as I read Children of the New World, a collection of stories by Alexander Weinstein. The stories use many of our current fears about technology gone mad. It exists not too far in the future but in a time when social media implants and memory manufacturing are possible. There are frighteningly immersive virtual reality games that aren’t so much games as they become reality. Robots are alarmingly intuitive. Many futures seem utopian at the beginning. These stories cover both ends. We have a utopian future of instant connection and gratification, at the cost of human distance, a price some of us are already willing to pay. There is also the world after the collapse landscape where we are once again primitive and rebuilding.
How about taking a vacation for $99? You can, by having a memory of a perfect vacation placed in your brain. It will be as real as any vacation you have actually take, but this one is perfect. (see false memories) The character who works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories in “The Cartographers” is so charmed by his creations that he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a real-world relationship, or separate the virtual from the real.
“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.” – The Boston Globe
Two of the stories that got me thinking were the title story and “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” What these stories share are children. In the latter story, the robot brother of an adopted Chinese girl malfunctions and needs to be taken away, and finally buried. But he has become a real brother and son. This theme was explored in the Steven Spielberg film AI from the point of view of the robot child, and in the recent TV series Humans.
In our desire to make robots and AI more human, we encounter the fear that they will gain sentience and become human – or close enough that we can’t tell the difference. In that story and in the film and television series, the families do not recognize the attachment they have to the robot until it is gone.
This speculative fiction of Alexander Weinstein is dark, sad and sometimes funny. It is not set that far into the future, and the technology is not so much sci-fi as it is extensions of what already exists. That makes it more frightening and perhaps more prescient.
In the story, “Children of the New World,” we find a couple who enter the Dark City and a virtual world. Here they can have everything they need, including things they never had in their real life, such as children. But a virtual world can be infected by viruses.
Mary took the children into our bedroom and I logged off to call online support. The man on the other end of the line spoke broken English, the line buzzing from an overseas connection. He tried a couple options with me, and finally said, “Sir, your account is corrupted. You will have to reset all files to the initial settings.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You must delete all data from your account—your preferences, photos and music. You will need to recreate your bodies again. I see you have children.”
“You will need to delete them.”
These 13 rather short stories are an easy and fast read. Hopefully, they leave a reader thinking. As with any great film, I want to talk to people after I watch or read something “thought-provoking.” I want human connections.
“Rocket Night” reminds me immediately of Shirley Jackson’s shocker “The Lottery.” The story is told by a parent in a calm, polite, logical way. It is about an event not unlike many held at elementary schools now, but for a twist that is revealed in the opening line.
“It was Rocket Night at our daughter’s elementary school, the night when parents, students, and the administration gather to place the least liked child in a rocket and shoot him into the stars. Last year we placed Laura Jackson into the capsule, a short, squat girl known for her limp dresses which hung crookedly on her body. The previous year we’d sent off a boy from India whose name none of us could remember.”
The more connected we are through technology, the less connected we really are to people and our world. Sherry Turkle’s non-fiction, Alone Together, made that point quite clearly right in its title and subtitle – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”
I see that online many readers compare Weinstein’s stories to the current series Black Mirror and to the past Twilight Zone. I can see those connections, but there are many comparisons that can be made.
This book took me back to the short stories of Ray Bradbury that I loved in my youth, and have reread with new meanings lately. In those stories I found a child visiting a museum that had the last remaining tree on Earth. I discovered many years ago a smart home in “There Will Come Soft Rains.” And in the disturbing story “The Veldt,” I could imagine the two children playing in their “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they could imagine, and the horror a child’s imagination might create.
Weinstein dedicates the book to his son, and parenting is something that runs through many of the stories. It is something that exists in all dystopian tales, because even if it is a future we personally will never see, we wonder about our children and their children. And we are worried.