With some exceptions, short story collections are usually just a series of unconnected tales. And even when they do have a connection, it’s usually based on some narrative device (all the stories were written by God) or based by where they were first published (The Complete New Yorker Stories). But in Children Of The New World: Stories (paperback, digital), writer Alexander Weinstein connects his sci-fi short stories with a theme, one that not only makes for good storytelling, but good cautionary advice as well.
Photo Credit: Jessica Spilos
I always like to start with the basics. I know Children Of The New World is a short story collection, but what kind of short stories are they? Sci-fi? Horror? All based on types of ice creams you’ve eaten at the local artisan ice cream place?
I tend to call the work speculative fiction, which has one foot in sci-fi and the other in literary realism. I joke that in ten years from now all the dystopian technology I write about will have become actualized, and Children Of The New World will read as pastoral realism.
All the stories share the theme of a world wherein technology has gone awry. Essentially, our society just ten to twenty years from now. The landscape is a near-future world of social media implants, memory manufacturers, dangerously immersive virtual reality games, and frighteningly intuitive robots. In the story “Saying Goodbye To Yang,” parents deal with their malfunctioning robotic child, and only upon his breakdown do they realize what an important part of their life he was. In “Moksha,” electronic enlightenment is a reality but has been made illegal in the United States, so the main character travels to Nepal to get a taste of digital illumination.
Why did you feel this theme was important to include?
I’ve been growing increasingly aware of how addicted we’re becoming to our technological devices, and the ways that this addiction is affecting our interpersonal relationships. We’ve all seen the families and friends, sitting over dinner at a restaurant, everyone looking down at their phones; at red lights, you can look over and see folks frantically checking their phones to send off one last email, then one more; online dating is teaching people how to window shop for other humans; and we have men and women becoming World Of Warcraft widows to partners they’d planned to have a lifelong intimate relationship with. So all of this is a new world that we’ve yet to really come to terms with. I personally find that I’m getting more addicted to my devices. I probably check my phone about twenty to thirty times a day now, which is insane. And I think I’m on the low end of the spectrum. At this point, learning to get unhooked from technological addiction is probably more difficult than quitting smoking.
Looking at Children Of The New World as a whole, who do you see as being the biggest overall influences on your writing?
George Saunders’ work was a really big influence on these stories. I love his social critique and his ability to explore human relationships within the context of hyper-technology and corporate commercialization. What I learned from his work was, 1) How to incorporate future technology without relying on info-dump narration, and 2) Imbuing my characters with a great deal of compassion and humanity.
Are there also stories where you see the influence of someone who isn’t an influence on any of the other stories?
The story “Ice Age“ — particularly the scene where the main character journeys beneath the ice to the houses below — was influenced by Italo Calvino. The son/father relationship in “Migration,” and especially their heart-to-heart conversation in the abandoned parking lot, was influenced by James Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues.” And the use of footnotes in “A Brief History Of The Failed Revolution” was influenced by David Foster Wallace.
You mentioned George Saunders earlier. The stories in Children Of The New World have been compared to his, Rick Bass’ (All The Land To Hold Us), and Alex Shakar’s (The Savage Girl), as well as the TV show Black Mirror. Do you think these comparisons are apt?
These are all very apt comparisons. 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. The show is 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?”
The stories in Children Of The New World deal a lot with modern technology. But how hard did you have to fight yourself to keep it from all being, “A cell phone goes nuts and kills a bunch of people,” “An iPad goes nuts and kills a bunch of people,” “An Xbox One S goes nuts and tries to kill a bunch of people but they unplug it before it can do any real damage”?
Ha! Well, none of the technology in the stories is out to kill people, though it’s true that the technology may be killing the characters in emotional/spiritual ways. I think the hardest part is envisioning technologies which are just one step beyond where we already are, and still distant enough that the satire will continue to work.
For example, I have a dated story that I wrote over a decade ago called “How Your Father And I Met.” It’s a monologue from a mother who is explaining how she met the children’s father online, and how he sent her a really funny video, and then she sent him a song she loved, and because they had so many links in common they decided to get married. The joke was supposed to be: look how superficial people will become in the future. I wrote this around the time online dating was starting to take off. Lo and behold, my critique no longer holds as satire. This is, in fact, precisely how people meet and fall in love online these days.
Similarly, a number of the technological innovations in Children Of The New World, which were intended as dystopian warnings, are already coming true. Apparently they’re working on contact lenses with eye-screens in them akin to my stories “The Pyramid And The Ass” and “Fall Line.”
So is it safe to assume that someone’s pointed out the irony of having to promote this book over social media?
Totally! And, of course, it’s true that there are plenty of good sides to technology. There are many online lit journals and blogs which are helping promote literature to the world. And I think there are great social/political ways that the internet helps us. We learn about social injustices around the world thanks to the Internet, and we’re able to protest and create human rights movements due to the networking capabilities technology provides. One can also download great spiritual talks from such thinkers as Ram Das, or Rabbi Zalman, or the Dalai Lama. And, in this way, there’s a wonderful availability of spiritual teachings thanks to technology. So there’s a kind of grassroots community building that can and does emerge thanks to the internet, and this is a wonderful thing.
Have any of the stories in Children Of The New World been optioned by movie or TV people yet?
There has been a lot of interest in bringing the stories to TV and film. I’m really thrilled about these, and looking forward to these coming to fruition.
Of the stories in Children Of The New World, which do you think would work the best as a TV show, which would make for the best movie?
“Excerpts From The New World Authorized Dictionary,” the story which is told in the form of dictionary entries, would work well for a television show since each of the definitions is a snapshot of a different technological future. I could see this story working in much the same way as Black Mirror, with each episode standing alone, but all adding up to a general theme.
I see “Saying Goodbye To Yang,” “The Cartographers,” “Migration, and the story “Children Of The New World” working really well as films, mostly because there’s just so much freedom in those stories to explore the strange landscapes and predicaments the characters find themselves in. And “The Pyramid And The Ass,” which deals with a nefarious US Gov’t figuring out reincarnation and going to war against the Dalai Lama and Buddhists, would be a really awesome big-studio action film.
Do you think any would make for a good graphic novel or video game? And does that hold any interest for you? Because in the press release I got for Children Of The New World, you brought up Pokemon Go…
I love graphic novels and independent comics, and I’m very interested in a graphic novel version of the collection. I’m presently working to connect with some of my favorite cartoonists to collaborate on a graphic novel anthology wherein different comic book artists would choose a story from the collection and then create their own interpretation of the story.
As for video games, I’d love to see what direction game designers might take the work. Certainly the story “Moksha,” with its interest in electronic enlightenment, would make for an interesting place to explore consciousness. Many contemporary video games have a penchant towards ultra-violence, but I’m also seeing a move towards games which create a sense of pure awe and wonder. I think it would be great if somehow the stories in Children Of The New World inspired further exploration into games which help expand our sense of consciousness, compassion, and empathy.
So now that Children Of The New World is out, have you started working on your next book? And if so, will it be a novel or short story collection, and what kind of technology will be going nuts in it and trying to kill people? I don’t think a blender has killed anyone in a while.
Ha! Yes, no killer blenders in the next collection. I’m presently working on my second book with Picador, The Lost Traveler’s Tour Guide, a novel comprised of tour guide entries that describe fantastical cities, museums, libraries, restaurants, hotels, and art galleries, each one a universe unto itself. It works primarily in the vein of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary Of The Khazars. It’s also a kind of autobiography, as each of the destinations is a metaphor for the emotional locations I’ve visited: museums of longing, hotels of joy, cities of heartbreak. Whereas Children Of The New World has ties to sci-fi, this new book is rooted in magical realism. All the same, I’m still working with my favorite topics: nostalgia, longing, memory, and love.
Finally, if someone enjoys Children Of The New World and they’re looking for something to read next, what would you suggest and why?
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut: Vonnegut is one of the great speculative satirists of our time, and I love his send up of religion, philosophy, and humanity in this novel.
In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders: A wonderful collection of technological/corporate satire, with an enormous amount of heart and compassion.
Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell: A beautiful collection of speculative fiction and alternate realities.
The Castle by Kafka: A classic satire of the alienating effects of government bureaucracy and social hierarchies.