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February 28, 2017

Reading List: Seeing the future

In reading Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World Connor discovers that dystopic visions of the future no longer seem divorced from reality.

  • Words: Connor Tomas O’Brien

2016 was the year in which all of our surest predictions failed. If the last decade has been, in part, defined by Silicon Valley’s obsession with accumulating enough ‘Big Data’ to render our behaviour – and the future itself – algorithmically predictable, the next might be defined by the opposite: the reluctant acceptance that none of us, no matter how much information we have, know enough to predict what might happen in the next five minutes.


 Connor Tomas O’Brien is a Melbourne-based writer, web designer, and co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely. In 2014, he created and directed the inaugural Digital Writers’ Festival. Day-to-day, he runs Studio Sometimes, a little design studio focussed on non-profits and literary organisations.

Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World was published several months after the Brexit vote, and just days before the US Presidential Election. The stories feel at home in our new culture of uncertainty. Set a decade or two in the future, each speculative piece explores the unintended consequences of social shifts predicated on rapid technological change. In the current climate, in which we are quickly losing the ability to muster surprise at the ridiculous, many are newly horrifying.

In Rocket Night, perhaps the collection’s most fantastic story, the “least-liked child” at a primary school is selected to be placed into a rocket-ship and shot “into the stars”. It’s a riff on Shirley Jackson’s classic short story The Lottery, but Weinstein’s version no longer seems to take place in another world, or at another time. Instead, his reworking seems designed to demonstrate that there is, now, no limit on how strange or shocking our near-future might be.

 …there is, now, no limit on how strange or shocking our near-future might be.

Most of Weinstein’s pieces revolve around the implications of the digitisation of love, sex, drugs and religion. In ‘Moksha’, enlightenment is found in clandestine Tibetan internet cafes, where data is shot through backpackers’ chakras “for five thousand rupees a pop”. In the titular story, meanwhile, an elderly couple, childless in the real world, create a family in a virtual world – and are forced to grapple with the implications of what happens when a computer virus forces them to leave.

Weinstein’s stories are reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series, or the BBC’s Humans, and they are appealing for similar reasons – each of their close-enough-to-touch dystopias are embedded with pathos, complexity, and humour. At the same time, though, the written form enables Weinstein to build his characters with greater subtlety.

In the best stories, it is the nuance of family relationships that is central, Stories like Migration or Heartland feature parents attempting, and failing, to provide for their families in a world in which much of what they know has been (sometimes literally) washed away by technological and environmental change.

It is, however, unfortunate that all of Weinstein’s protagonists are male, and at least mostly white. Considering that so many of his stories revolve around how identity is reimagined in our digital futures, it’s a shame the perspectives offered are so limited.

Even so, Weinstein’s conceptual reach is impressive. In exploring the possible implications of climate change, for example, he avoids the obvious and presents the reader with subtle and imaginative scenarios. In Fall Line, a has-been skier faces the prospect of complete unemployment as snow stops falling, leaving the world’s mountaintops bare.

Though each of the author’s imagined futures is, in its own way, deliberately preposterous, it now seems unwise to rule any of them out entirely. Ironically, perhaps, in an unpredictable world, speculative fiction may prove to be the most useful form of storytelling we have.

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