Book Review: Children of the New World: Stories, Alexander Weinstein (2016)

September 23rd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“a comeback story without a comeback”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads.)

We were like babies. Like Adam and Eve, some said. We reached out toward one another to see how skin felt; we let our neighbors’ hands run across our arms. In this world, we seemed to understand, we were free to experience a physical connection that we’d always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve. Who can blame us for being reckless?

(“Children of the New World”)

Publicly, we sold memories under Quimbly, Barrett & Woods, but when it was just the three of us, working late into the night, we thought of ourselves as mapmakers. […] Here was the ocean, here the ships, here the hotel, here the path that led to town, here the street vendors, here the memories of children we never had and parents much better than the ones we did. And far out there was the edge of the world.

(“The Cartographers”)

It’s not often that I’m so truly and hopelessly blown away by a collection of short stories. Anthologies with multiple contributors are almost always a little choppy, and even those written by a single author tend to be a mixed bag. But Alexander Weinstein? He works some serious magic in Children of the New World.

The thirteen stories found within these pages are beautiful, imaginative, and deeply unsettling. Together, they create a portrait of a future beholden to technology: where consumers willingly and happily abandon memories based on fact in favor kinder, gentler fictions; where humans rarely leave the virtual world, let alone their houses; where people fornicate like mad but reproduce through cloning – and sometimes even programming. Where lovers can peel back all their layers – metaphorically and literally – and grant their partners access to every fleeting thought, emotion, and memory. Where even the apocalypse is powerless to break the hold that mere things – Lego toys and Kitchenaid mixers – exert over us.

I fell in love with most of the stories, and liked the rest well enough; not a single one rated less than 4/5 stars. Usually it’s hard for me to play favorites, but I definitely have mine here. In “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” Jim and Kyra adopt a little girl from China rather than clone themselves, as is all the rage in the U.S. To help bridge the cultural gap, they also purchase Yang, a sort of babysitter android programmed to speak Mandarin and teach Mika about her homeland. When Mika’s “Big Brother” malfunctions, the narrator and his wife are made to recognize the central role Yang played in their lives – and his fundamental humanity. “Children of the Real World” also deals with parental grief, though of a much different (and even less socially acceptable) sort. I don’t have kids, but I’ve loved and lost many dogs over the years – and the guardian in me can definitely relate.

In this vein, “The Cartographers” is also melancholy AF, though you don’t quite realize how much so until the very end. As with “Children of the New World,” the tenuous line between what’s real and what’s not forms the emotional core of the story. How I long to say more, but spoilers!

On the unsettling end of the spectrum are “Migration” and “Rocket Night,” in which parents consider selling photos of them online; and actually do put their kids in rocket ships and shoot them into the stars. I didn’t quite get the second story, though I suspect it’s symbolic of our tendency to sacrifice the “lesser” among us for the greater good – but just what that good consists of, I’m not sure. Or perhaps it has more to do with distancing ourselves from tragedy?

What’s especially interesting about this collection is that, while each story is its own discrete entity, they come together in strange and unexpected ways. This could be the same ‘verse, or the same ‘verse at different points in time. Or it could be many different parallel universes, separated only by the delicate flutter of a butterfly’s wings. Or maybe (just maybe!) a judge’s ruling that consciousness is, indeed, privately owned (“Failed Revolution”).

Not even all of these are stories per se; “Failed Revolution” is a yarn masquerading as an academic paper, while the surprisingly funny (and feminist!) “Excerpts from The New World Authorized Dictionary consists of several terms (brainflea, mushing, togging) and their definitions.

Whatever form the story assumes, Weinstein’s writing is graceful and lovely, earnest and thoughtful, and disturbing on so many levels. These stories are guaranteed to make you think – well into the wee hours of the morning. If you love speculative fiction or consider yourself a tech geek, you owe it to yourself to meet the Children of the New World.

Saying Goodbye to Yang – 5/5
The Cartographers – 5/5
Heartland – 5/5
Excerpts from The New World Authorized Dictionary – 5/5
Moksha – 4/5
Children of the New World – 5/5
Fall Line – 4/5
A Brief History of the Failed Revolution – 4/5
Migration – 5/5
The Pyramid and the Ass – 4/5
Rocket Night – 4/5
Openness – 5/5
Ice Age – 5/5

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: In “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” Jim and Kyra opted to adopt a girl from child rather than clone themselves, as is the custom in future America. In order to help them bridge the cultural gap, they also purchased a “babysitter” android named Yang, a sort of “Big Brother” for Mika. Even with Yang’s help, the mixed-race family faces all sorts of obstacles – including anti-Asian prejudice, thanks to the US’s invasion of North Korea.

In “The Cartographers,” Adam and his coworker (who goes mad with religious memories) become addicted to manufactured memories, thanks in no small part to their controlling and manipulative boss (who tasks them with beta testing the memories the company makes and sells).

In “Heartland,” the narrator’s daughter Laurie is born with a stray eye, which he and his wife Cara don’t have the money to fix. When his boss Larry cracks a joke about it, the narrator attacks him – only to lose his choice job at a soil company. At the time of the story, more than a year has passed and he’s still unemployed.

In “Children of the New World,” the narrator and his wife Mary are grieving the loss of their children, June and Oscar – who were lost when a virus infected their New World account and they were forced to reboot the system. The end up attenting a real-world support group for other people who lost their virtual children.

In “Fall Line,” extreme skier Ronnie Hawks suffered a debilitating accident when a jump off a cliff face went sideways. Now it’s several years later, and he’s finished with rehab and ostensibly ready for a comeback. Yet he’s saved by the bell, so to speak: global warming = the end of snow sports, offering him a graceful exit from a world he no longer wants a part of. Or so he thinks.

Andy, the narrator of “Openness,” lived with an abusive father and a clinically depressed mother.

In “Ice Age,” one percenter Phil Paulson maintains a team of Mexican laborers – including Jorge, a Chilean with “Mayan features.”

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. Since some of the stories are dystopian/post-apocalyptic, there are a few scenes of animal exploitation, e.g., hunting wild animals for food; training the few surviving dogs to track prey and pull sleds; etc. In “The Cartographers,” Adam’s girlfriend Cynthia is vegan, anti-tech, and a social justice activist – but it turns out that she’s actually a false memory implanted in Adam’s brain by his boss, to help him kick his addiction to manufactured memories.


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