In 1872, when the first clay tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh were being rediscovered in the buried library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal for the first time in almost two millennia, an anonymous article in The New York Times cogitated on the stunning divide between the advanced technologies of the day—the telegraph, the newspaper—and the advanced technology of Ashurbanipal’s day—baked clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform text. “It is hardly possible to conceive of two more opposite literary productions than the modern newspaper and the crumbling and mysterious records found among the ruins of antiquity,” they wrote. “A telegraph dispatch and a cuneiform inscription are both composed of letters, and are alike media for the transmission of intelligence; and yet how immeasurably different are the ideas of life, time, and space which the mention of the two suggests.”
And while the difference between the cuneiform tablet and the telegraph must have indeed appeared vast, it is nothing compared to the chasm that separates the telegraph from the internet, the iPhone, the early days of V.R. and robotics, everything 2.0. These technologies, so unremarkable that they fit in our pockets, have deeply altered the lives and the worlds of people who use them in unimaginable ways, and not even a hundred and fifty years have passed since that article in the New York Times. Alexander Weinstein’s short story collection Children of the New World (which came out in September 2016), by imagining us just a bit further into the technological future we’ve created for ourselves, allows readers to truly grasp how enmeshed we are in our own modern-day clay tablets. The collection does a great job performing the vaunted fictional possibility of defamiliarization, unsticking us from our complacency and allowing us to look at our smartphones with a mixture of horror, anger, and trepidation that we’ve already given too much to its sleek glass facade.
An android adopted into a family to act as babysitter and cultural bridge between young parents and an adopted Chinese baby; a ski-bum still clinging to the mountain-life even after the snow has disappeared, pining for the glory days where he uploaded killer backcountry videos through the cameras implanted in his eyes; lives lived almost entirely in full-body rubber suit enhanced V.R.; the Buddhist knowledge of reincarnation corporatized, weaponized, commodified, the Dalai Lama turned into an enemy of the state; the failed rebellion against the uploading of consciousness into the web, told through an academic article complete with footnotes: each story in Weinstein’s collection takes one aspect of recognizable technology, nudges it just a little further, and watches it impact regular (mostly white, mostly middle-class) Americans.
The stories, written in unadorned, straightforward prose—sort of like a George Saunders story if Saunders stopped at draft three instead of draft ninety-three—have a powerfully unsettling, cumulative effect. For me, that effect boils down to: I have to get off Twitter before it’s too late. I have to curb my email addiction. I have to do something about the silicon valleyization of the world. Weinstein, in these stories, appears to be a pessimist: every rebellion, every attempt to unplug, is more-or-less met with failure. In the last story, “Ice Age,” a group of survivors from the cataclysmic re-appearance of the glaciers fail to move past a class-based system of societal organization, instead getting swept right back up in its promise of increasing wealth, forever comfort, and shiny toys for the children. And yes, the technocratic corporate takeover of our bodies and minds and lifeways may seem like an impenetrable glaciated wall bearing down on us—and perhaps it is—but there’s still things we can do. This might explain Weinstein’s author photo, a full bodied-shot with the tanned Weinstein standing barefoot in the sand of some covey beach, the ocean behind him, his jeans rolled up, wearing a brown puffy vest and a big smile. As deep into our computer-based new realities as we are, the photo suggests, there is still time to leave the phone in the car, take off our shoes, and walk along the windy limn where land-based life first climbed out of the salty sea. Or, at the very least, we can refresh the river of our Twitter feeds, which feels enough like logging off to satisfy the urge to actually do so.