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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.
One of the extraordinary humans we lost last year who won’t make the celebrity In Memoriam lists is Umberto Eco. He was an Italian semiotics scholar who wrote an unlikely best-selling novel that launched a literary career.
Semiotics was a field I had never heard of when I encountered Eco’s book and looked up the word in a print encyclopedia. It was 1980. It is the study of meaning-making. It turned out to include many of things that I had been trained to use as an English major, such as analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor and symbolism.
The novel that brought him to the attention of many people was The Name of the Rose. It was an unlikely bestseller being a murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery. It is filled with biblical references and discussions of Christian theology and heresies.
It is set in 1327 in a Benedictine Italian abbey that is being investigated for heresy by Brother William of Baskerville who becomes our detective after seven bizarre deaths occur at the abbey. He may be a character in the Sherlock Holmes mold, but he would say he was influenced by Aristotle, Aquinas and Roger Bacon. There are plenty of ciphers, secret symbols and coded manuscripts in the novel that darkly twists like the labyrinth passages of the abbey.
It was an international best-seller. It even became a 1986 movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.
I once described the book to a friend who said, “So, it’s like the Dan Brown books?” Though it may share some aspects with Brown’s Langdon bestsellers (The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons), Umberto Ec’s novels have very different intentions. At the risk of sounding snobby, I would say his books are much more cerebral and literary.
That being said, I tear through the Dan Brown page-turners too. Eco said of his first novels’ success that he thought that “People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”
Another Eco novel is Foucault’s Pendulum which in brief does sound like a Brown novel. Three bored editors in Italy create a hoax that weaves in Kabbalah, alchemy, conspiracy theories and connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. The hoax and plot involves a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled. This point is in Paris at the site of the real Foucault’s Pendulum. The Foucault Pendulum is named after the French physicist Léon Foucault who created this simple device as an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. It turns out that some of the occult groups included in the hoax are real and not happy about someone’s attempt to wrest away their power.
I met Umberto Eco very briefly after he gave a reading in New York. His talk was hard to follow. More of it was about his teaching at the University of Bologna and the application of semiotics to popular culture like films, James Bond and even the comic strip Peanuts characters. He was funny, even though I wasn’t always sure I got the joke, I knew it was a joke. It reminded me of my undergraduate philosophy classes when I understood all the words being said, but I wasn’t sure what they meant as sentences.
I had a hard time with two of his other novels – The Island of the Day Before (1994) and The Prague Cemetery (2011), but the books always get me thinking and also digging around for more information about the people and ideas alluded to in them.
Novelist Salman Rushdie was not a fan. In writing about Foucault’s Pendulum he said it was “humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.” Then again, I’m not a Rushdie fan.
Someone asked Eco at the reading if he would prefer to live in the Middle Ages. He quickly answered no, and said that he prefered the Middle Ages of his imagination to the actual historical period which was probably a very depressing time to be alive.
I just saw Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Both star Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska, with Helena Bonhan Carter and Anne Hathaway but the sequel (directed by James Bobin) is crazier than the Mad Hatter.
I am a fan of all the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, and I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
I also enjoyed the Disney animated Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid. Back then, I liked the Cheshire Cat. In the mid-1960s, it was the hookah-smoking Caterpillar that got all the attention. “One pill makes you larger. One pill makes you small,” sang the Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.” We knew that Lewis Carroll had to be tripping on something.
I was ready for a Burton sequel. I was okay when they announced another director because the original casting was intact. It’s been six years since the first film was released.
Here’s the problem. They took Lewis Carroll’s title and the characters, but they chucked the plot. That is always a bad sign.
Actually, I thought I might even be okay with the new plot because they slipped in one of my favorite things – time travel.
In this version, Alice still enters the magical looking glass and goes back to Wonderland. She discovers that the Mad Hatter is acting madder than usual. He needs closure about what happened with his lost family. To do that, Alice has to travel through time.
She finds and hijacks a Chronosphere and zips through time to deal with her friends and their enemies at different points of their lives.
Alice Through The Looking Glass flopped at the box office. I doubt that the reason was that there are too many Carroll purists out there.
I watched it and I was entertained. It wasn’t great filmmaking, but the effects were well done. the outrageous performances were, well, outrageous, as i suppose they must be in Wonderland.
The film sent me back to the books. I was delighted that as an Amazon Prime person, I could get all four Alice books free on my Kindle. Most people don’t know there is more to Alice than just the first Wonderland book. The tetralogy includes Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Alice-related fantasy verse The Hunting of the Snark, and Alice’s Adventures Underground. That last one is the shorter, original Alice in Wonderland manuscript which Carroll wrote for his friends and family. They encouraged the mathematician to expand the book and send it to a publisher.
Martin Gardner wrote in the introduction to his The Annotated Alice “that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.”
Lewis Carroll, an imaginative mathematician, believed that nonsense was the hidden art of language.
In the first chapter, Alice is playing with her kittens in the house and she starts to wonder what the world is like on the other side of a mirror’s reflection. Isn’t that a kind of mathematical thought too?
She climbs up on the fireplace mantel and pokes at the big wall mirror behind the fireplace and discovers that she can step through it. On the other side is a reflected version of her own house. She finds a book of poetry with “Jabberwocky” in it. It has reversed printing but she can read it by holding it up to the mirror. She can see that the chess pieces from her house have come to life, though they remain small enough for her to pick up.
The second section of the book actually has a lot of changes in time and spatial directions as plot devices, so maybe that inspired the new film. There are lots of plays on mirror themes – things are opposite, time goes backwards.
Alice says that she thinks time is a thief. She gets no argument from me on that.
I still subscribe to and read a few magazines printed on paper. One of those that I have subscribed to pretty much without a break is Esquire. I realized while looking through a few old issues that I saved that I have been reading it for 50 years.
Esquire is an American men’s magazine, published by the Hearst Corporation in the United States. It was first issued in October 1933.
Its boom time was probably during the Great Depression when it was guided along by one of its founders, Arnold Gingrich.
I started reading it when I was in high school at the end of the 1960s. As someone who planned on being an English major, I figured I had to read magazines such as Esquire and The New Yorker.
But The New Yorker, despite poetry, John Updike and friends and great cartoons, was very expensive for a high school kid saving for college. I subscribed once and the weekly issues kept piling up. I couldn’t just throw them away and tried to go through every issue, but it was overwhelming.
Esquire lacked regular cartoons and didn’t run poems, but it had its own set of famous writers like Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, F. Scott Fitzgerald and André Gide back in the early days, and starting in the 1940s, it had Petty Girls and Vargas Girls. Those pinups moved to Playboy in the 1950s but Esquire provided some occasional sexy or semi-nude photos, but it never became a “men’s magazine” in the Playboy way.
I started reading Esquire in 1967 and probably subscribed around 1969. That was the time of “New Journalism” and the magazine featured writers as Norman Mailer, Tim O’Brien, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Terry Southern.
One of the issues I still have is the October 1970 issue with Hemingway on the cover. It is a nice time capsule of the fall of my senior year of high school when I was full of thoughts of college, reading literature and becoming a writer. That issue has “Bimini” the first publication of a major episode from the forthcoming novel by Hemingway, Islands in the Stream. As I page past ads for the Chevrolet Vega, a Yamaha 60cc mini-bike and a section on Johnny Carson’s new fashion wardrobe, I read about “Esquire’s Heavy 100” who’s who and who isn’t in rock music, and “Lost Chapters” of Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, and an article on Sundance Kid Robert Redford. That’s a pretty good time capsule.
David M. Granger became editor-in-chief in 1997. No surprise, the magazine has changed over the years and as editors change.
It still picks up National Magazine Awards, but there is less fiction and more non-fiction and politics.
It changed, but so did I. I’m less in love with the magazine these days, but we have been friends for so long that I can’t give up on it.
These days the writers I read most regularly there are the profiles and essays of Tom Chiarella, Scott Raab and Tom Junod.
The women are still there. In a time when even Playboy gave up on the nude photos because no magazine can compete with the Internet, Esquire has its annual “Sexiest Woman Alive” issue and regularly has “Women We Love.” I’m sure that many women still find all that to be sexist, but I think it’s done in good taste – and often with humor.
The magazine published its 1,000th issue and is still going strong.
The magazine has online “Esquire Classic,” a subscriber service archive that allows you to read “anything Esquire has ever published.” I probably don’t have time for any of the unread 50,000+ articles they have published. It also has audio and there was a free podcast (I think that is done) and you can read and listen to things like F.Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” or “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” by Norman Mailer ,” or “A Few Words about Breasts” by Nora Ephron and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese.
There was a Donald Trump Cover in 2004 to accompany an article titled “How I’d Run the Country (Better).” In it, he pulls Esquire into his Iraq War fantasy. You should have read in 2004. You really should have read it in 2016. You’d better read it in 2017.
I know it’s hard times for print publications, but you can subscribe to Esquire for $5 (10 issues) and I can guarantee that in a year you are going to find a lot more than five dollars worth of entertainment in there. Support print!
I bet that a lot of people reading this post are making resolutions for the new year, and I suspect that cleaning up messiness both literal and figurative in their life is on many of those lists.
Your parents have been telling you this since you were a kid. Your spouse, roommate, officemate and others may have been suggesting it. I am constantly trying – and failing – to achieve a state of orderliness that I can maintain.
The chaos of a house or room or closet, garage, basement, or even a desk drawer or desktop just seems wrong. I also think that achieving even a small feat of order – such as an empty inbox – gives us not only satisfaction but the hope that we can accomplish the same order in our larger areas. may even in our personal life.
People are writing books about how to clean and organize, and I wrote here about the combined joy and sadness of throwing things away. But that process (and those readings) can make you very anxious and just remind you of your failures to get rid of the mess.
A good amount of the rhetoric of the recent election was about cleaning up the mess in Washington D.C. and across the country. Donald Trump’s campaign was a mess. But he won.
But I have to thank podcast episode 53 of Hidden Brain for turning me on to the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. For the New Year, I appreciate a book that celebrates the benefits that messiness has in our lives.
Embrace the messiness and chaos! It is important. Stop resisting.
The author, Tim Harford, is an economist, but he looks at research from neuroscience, psychology, social science, and examples of people who did extraordinary things in messy and chaotic ways.
Some qualities that we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – seem to require a degree of disorder, confusion, and disarray.
This messiness doesn’t have to be visible, like that pile of stuff on and around your desk. Think about how unexpected changes of plans and unplanned events can generate new ideas and opportunities. Yes, these things can also make you anxious and angry, but you need to let that part go.
The book (and the podcast for the not-lazy but more aural learners) can help you stop underestimating the value of disorder. I’m typing this on the couch surrounded by unread magazines and notes for things I want to write and the remains of breakfast – and I feel fine.