A New York Times Notable Book
“A darkly mesmerizing, fearless, and exquisitely written work. Stunning, harrowing, and brilliantly imagined.” —Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven
Children of the New World introduces readers to a near-future world of social media implants, memory manufacturers, dangerously immersive virtual reality games, and alarmingly intuitive robots. Many of these characters live in a utopian future of instant connection and technological gratification that belies an unbridgeable human distance, while others inhabit a post-collapse landscape made primitive by disaster, which they must work to rebuild as we once did millennia ago.
In “The Cartographers,” the main character works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories, while struggling to maintain a real-world relationship sabotaged by an addiction to his own creations. In “After Yang,” the robotic brother of an adopted Chinese child malfunctions, and only in his absence does the family realize how real a son he has become.
Children of the New World grapples with our unease in this modern world and how our ever-growing dependence on new technologies has changed the shape of our society. Alexander Weinstein is a visionary and singular voice in speculative fiction for all of us who are fascinated by and terrified of what we might find on the horizon.
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About the Author
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Children of the New World
By Alexander Weinstein
PicadorCopyright © 2016 Alexander Weinstein
All rights reserved.
SAYING GOODBYE TO YANG
WE'RE SITTING AROUND the table eating Cheerios — my wife sipping tea, Mika playing with her spoon, me suggesting apple picking over the weekend — when Yang slams his head into his cereal bowl. It's a sudden mechanical movement, and it splashes cereal and milk all over the table. Yang rises, looking as though nothing odd just occurred, and then he slams his face into the bowl again. Mika thinks this is hysterical. She starts mimicking Yang, bending over to dunk her own face in the milk, but Kyra's pulling her away from the table and whisking her out of the kitchen so I can take care of Yang.
At times like these, I'm not the most clearheaded. I stand in my kitchen, my chair knocked over behind me, at a total loss. Shut him down, call the company? Shut him down, call the company? By now the bowl is empty, milk dripping off the table, Cheerios all over the goddamned place, and Yang has a red ring on his forehead from where his face has been striking the bowl. A bit of skin has pulled away from his skull over his left eyelid. I decide I need to shut him down; the company can walk me through the reboot. I get behind Yang and untuck his shirt from his pants as he jerks forward, then I push the release button on his back panel. The thing's screwed shut and won't pop open.
"Kyra," I say loudly, turning toward the doorway to the living room. No answer, just the sound of Mika upstairs, crying to see her brother, and the concussive thuds of Yang hitting his head against the table. "Kyra!" "What is it?" she yells back. Thud.
"I need a Phillips head!"
"I can't get it! Mika's having a tantrum!" Thud.
Kyra and I aren't usually like this. We're a good couple, communicative and caring, but moments of crisis bring out the worst in us. The skin above Yang's left eye has completely split, revealing the white membrane beneath. There's no time for me to run to the basement for my toolbox. I grab a butter knife from the table and attempt to use the tip as a screwdriver. The edge, however, is too wide, completely useless against the small metal cross of the screw, so I jam the knife into the back panel and pull hard. There's a cracking noise, and a piece of flesh-colored Bioplastic skids across the linoleum as I flip open Yang's panel. I push the power button and wait for the dim blue light to shut off. With alarming stillness, Yang sits upright in his chair, as though something is amiss, and cocks his head toward the window. Outside, a cardinal takes off from the branch where it was sitting. Then, with an internal sigh, Yang slumps forward, chin dropping to his chest. The illumination beneath his skin extinguishes, giving his features a sickly ashen hue.
I hear Kyra coming down the stairs with Mika. "Is Yang okay?"
"Don't come in here!"
"Mika wants to see her brother."
"Stay out of the kitchen! Yang's not doing well!" The kitchen wall echoes with the muffled footsteps of my wife and daughter returning upstairs.
"Fuck," I say under my breath. Not doing well? Yang's a piece of crap and I just destroyed his back panel. God knows how much those cost. I get out my cell and call Brothers & Sisters Inc. for help.
* * *
WHEN WE ADOPTED Mika three years ago, it seemed like the progressive thing to do. We considered it our one small strike against cloning. Kyra and I are both white, middle-class, and have lived an easy and privileged life; we figured it was time to give something back to the world. It was Kyra who suggested she be Chinese. The earthquake had left thousands of orphans in its wake, Mika among them. It was hard not to agree. My main concern — one I voiced to Kyra privately, and quite vocally to the adoption agency during our interview — was the cultural differences. The most I knew about China came from the photos and "Learn Chinese" translations on the place mats at Golden Dragon. The adoption agency suggested purchasing Yang.
"He's a Big Brother, babysitter, and storehouse of cultural knowledge all in one," the woman explained. She handed us a colorful pamphlet — China! it announced in red dragon-shaped letters — and said we should consider. We considered. Kyra was putting in forty hours a week at Crate & Barrel, and I was still managing double shifts at Whole Foods. It was true, we were going to need someone to take care of Mika, and there was no way we were going to use some clone from the neighborhood. Kyra and I weren't egocentric enough to consider ourselves worth replicating, nor did we want our neighbors' perfect kids making our daughter feel insecure. In addition, Yang came with a breadth of cultural knowledge that Kyra and I could never match. He was programmed with grades K through college, and had an in-depth understanding of national Chinese holidays like flag-raising ceremonies and Ghost Festivals. He knew about moon cakes and sky lanterns. For two hundred more, we could upgrade to a model that would teach Mika tai chi and acupressure when she got older. I thought about it. "I could learn Mandarin," I said as we lay in bed that night. "Come on," Kyra said, "there's no fucking way that's happening." So I squeezed her hand and said, "Okay, it'll be two kids then."
* * *
HE CAME TO us fully programmed; there wasn't a baseball game, pizza slice, bicycle ride, or movie that I could introduce him to. Early on I attempted such outings to create a sense of companionship, as though Yang were a foreign exchange student in our home. I took him to see the Tigers play in Comerica Park. He sat and ate peanuts with me, and when he saw me cheer, he followed suit and put his hands in the air, but there was no sense that he was enjoying the experience. Ultimately, these attempts at camaraderie, from visiting haunted houses to tossing a football around the backyard, felt awkward — as though Yang were humoring me — and so, after a couple months, I gave up. He lived with us, ate food, privately dumped his stomach canister, brushed his teeth, read Mika goodnight stories, and went to sleep when we shut off the lights.
All the same, he was an important addition to our lives. You could always count on him to keep conversation going with some fact about China that none of us knew. I remember driving with him, listening to World Drum on NPR, when he said from the backseat, "This song utilizes the xun, an ancient Chinese instrument organized around minor third intervals." Other times, he'd tell us Fun Facts. Like one afternoon, when we'd all gotten ice cream at Old World Creamery, he turned to Mika and said, "Did you know ice cream was invented in China over four thousand years ago?" His delivery of this info was a bit mechanical — a linguistic trait we attempted to keep Mika from adopting. There was a lack of passion to his statements, as though he wasn't interested in the facts. But Kyra and I understood this to be the result of his being an early model, and when one considered the moments when he'd turn to Mika and say, "I love you, little sister," there was no way to deny what an integral part of our family he was.
* * *
TWENTY MINUTES OF hold-time later, I'm informed that Brothers & Sisters Inc. isn't going to replace Yang. My warranty ran out eight months ago, which means I've got a broken Yang, and if I want telephone technical support, it's going to cost me thirty dollars a minute now that I'm post-warranty. I hang up. Yang is still slumped with his chin on his chest. I go over and push the power button on his back, hoping all he needed was to be restarted. Nothing. There's no blue light, no sound of his body warming up.
Shit, I think. There goes eight thousand dollars.
"Can we come down yet?" Kyra yells.
"Hold on a minute!" I pull Yang's chair out and place my arms around his waist. It's the first time I've actually embraced Yang, and the coldness of his skin surprises me. While he has lived with us almost as long as Mika, I don't think anyone besides her has ever hugged or kissed him. There have been times when, as a joke, one of us might nudge Yang with an elbow and say something humorous like, "Lighten up, Yang!" but that's been the extent of our contact. I hold him close to me now, bracing my feet solidly beneath my body, and lift. He's heavier than I imagined, his weight that of the eighteen-year-old boy he's designed to be. I hoist him onto my shoulder and carry him through the living room out to the car.
My neighbor, George, is next door raking leaves. George is a friendly enough guy, but completely unlike us. Both his children are clones, and he drives a hybrid with a bumper sticker that reads IF I WANTED TO GO SOLAR, I'D GET A TAN. He looks up as I pop the trunk. "That Yang?" he asks, leaning against his rake.
"Yeah," I say and lower Yang into the trunk.
"No shit. What's wrong with him?"
"Don't know. One moment we're sitting having breakfast, the next he's going haywire. I had to shut him down, and he won't start up again."
"Jeez. You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," I say instinctively, though as I answer, I realize that I'm not. My legs feel wobbly and the sky above us seems thinner, as though there's less air. Still, I'm glad I answered as I did. A man who paints his face for Super Bowl games isn't the type of guy to open your heart to.
"You got a technician?" George asks.
"Actually, no. I was going to take him over to Quick Fix and see —"
"Don't take him there. I've got a good technician, took Tiger there when he wouldn't fetch. The guy's in Kalamazoo, but it's worth the drive." George takes a card from his wallet. "He'll check Yang out and fix him for a third of what those guys at Q-Fix will charge you. Tell Russ I sent you."
* * *
RUSS GOODMAN'S TECH Repair Shop is located two miles off the highway amid a row of industrial warehouses. The place is wedged between Mike's Muffler Repair and a storefront called Stacey's Second Times — a cluttered thrift store displaying old rifles, iPods, and steel bear traps in its front window. Two men in caps and oil-stained plaid shirts are standing in front smoking cigarettes. As I park alongside the rusted mufflers and oil drums of Mike's, they eye my solar car like they would a flea-ridden dog.
"Hi there, I'm looking for Russ Goodman," I say as I get out. "I called earlier."
The taller of the two, a middle-aged man with gray stubble and weathered skin, nods to the other guy to end their conversation. "That'd be me," he says. I'm ready to shake his hand, but he just takes a drag from his cigarette stub and says, "Let's see what you got," so I pop the trunk instead. Yang is lying alongside my jumper cables and windshield-washing fluid with his legs folded beneath him. His head is twisted at an unnatural angle, as though he were trying to turn his chin onto the other side of his shoulder. Russ stands next to me, with his thick forearms and a smell of tobacco, and lets out a sigh. "You brought a Korean." He says this as a statement of fact. Russ is the type of person I've made a point to avoid in my life: a guy that probably has a WE CLONE OUR OWN sticker on the back of his truck.
"He's Chinese," I say.
"Same thing," Russ says. He looks up and gives the other man a shake of his head. "Well," he says heavily, "bring him inside, I'll see what's wrong with him." He shakes his head again as he walks away and enters his shop.
Russ's shop consists of a main desk with a telephone and cash register, across from which stands a table with a coffeemaker, Styrofoam cups, and powdered creamer. Two vinyl chairs sit by a table with magazines on it. The door to the workroom is open. "Bring him back here," Russ says. Carrying Yang over my shoulder, I follow him into the back room.
The work space is full of body parts, switchboards, cables, and tools. Along the wall hang disjointed arms, a couple of knees, legs of different sizes, and the head of a young girl, about seventeen, with long red hair. There's a worktable cluttered with patches of skin and a Pyrex box full of female hands. All the skin tones are Caucasian. In the middle of the room is an old massage table streaked with grease. Probably something Russ got from Stacey's Seconds. "Go 'head and lay him down there," Russ says. I place Yang down on his stomach and position his head in the small circular face rest at the top of the table.
"I don't know what happened to him," I say. "He's always been fine, then this morning he started malfunctioning. He was slamming his head onto the table over and over." Russ doesn't say anything. "I'm wondering if it might be a problem with his hard drive," I say, feeling like an idiot. I've got no clue what's wrong with him; it's just something George mentioned I should check out. I should have gone to Quick Fix. The young techies with their polished manners always make me feel more at ease. Russ still hasn't spoken. He takes a mallet from the wall and a Phillips head screwdriver. "Do you think it's fixable?"
"We'll see. I don't work on imports," he says, meeting my eyes for the first time since I've arrived, "but, since you know George, I'll open him up and take a look. Go 'head and take a seat out there."
"How long do you think it'll take?"
"Won't know till I get him opened up," Russ says, wiping his hands on his jeans.
"Okay," I say meekly and leave Yang in Russ's hands.
In the waiting room I pour myself a cup of coffee and stir in some creamer. I set my cup on the coffee table and look through the magazines. There's Guns & Ammo, Tech Repair, Brothers & Sisters Digest — I put the magazines back down. The wall behind the desk is cluttered with photos of Russ and his kids, all of whom look exactly like him, and, buried among these, a small sign with an American flag on it and the message THERE AIN'T NO YELLOW IN THE RED, WHITE, AND BLUE.
"Pssh," I say instinctually, letting out an annoyed breath of air. This was the kind of crap that came out during the invasion of North Korea, back when the nation changed the color of its ribbons from yellow to blue. Ann Arbor's a progressive city, but even there, when Kyra and I would go out with Yang and Mika in public, there were many who avoided eye contact. Stop the War activists weren't any different. It was that first Christmas, as Kyra, Yang, Mika, and I were at the airport being individually searched, that I realized Chinese, Japanese, South Korean didn't matter anymore; they'd all become threats in the eyes of Americans. I decide not to sit here looking at Russ's racist propaganda, and leave to check out the bear traps at Stacey's.
* * *
"HE'S DEAD," RUSS tells me. "I can replace his insides, more or less build him back from scratch, but that's gonna cost you about as much as a used one."
I stand looking at Yang, who's lying on the massage table with a tangle of red and green wires protruding from his back. Even though his skin has lost its vibrant color, it still looks soft, like when he first came to our home. "Isn't there anything else you can do?"
"His voice box and language system are still running. If you want, I'll take it out for you. He'll be able to talk to her, there just won't be any face attached. Cost you sixty bucks." Russ is wiping his hands on a rag, avoiding my eyes. I think of the sign hanging in the other room. Sure, I think, I can just imagine the pleasure Russ will take in cutting up Yang.
"No, that's all right. I'll just take him home. What do I owe you?"
"Nothing," Russ says. I look up at him. "You know George," he says as explanation. "Besides, I can't fix him for you."
* * *
On the ride home, I call Kyra. She picks up on the second ring.
"Hey, it's me." My voice is ragged.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I say, then add, "Actually, no."
"What's the matter? How's Yang?"
"I don't know. The tech I took him to says he's dead, but I don't believe him — the guy had a thing against Asians. I'm thinking about taking Yang over to Quick Fix." There's silence on the other end of the line. "How's Mika?" I ask.
"She keeps asking if Yang's okay. I put a movie on for her. ... Dead?" she asks. "Are you positive?"
"No, I'm not sure. I don't know. I'm not ready to give up on him yet. Look," I say, glancing at the dash clock, "it's only three. I'm going to suck it up and take him to Quick Fix. I'm sure if I drop enough cash they can do something."
"What will we do if he's dead?" Kyra asks. "I've got work on Monday."
"We'll figure it out," I say. "Let's just wait until I get a second opinion."
Kyra tells me she loves me, and I return my love, and we hang up. It's as my Bluetooth goes dead that I feel the tears coming. I remember last fall when Kyra was watching Mika. I was in the garage taking down the rake when, from behind me, I heard Yang. He stood awkwardly in the doorway, as though he was uncertain what to do while Mika was being taken care of. "Can I help you?" he asked.
On that chilly late afternoon, with the red and orange leaves falling around us — me in my vest, and Yang in the black suit he came with — Yang and I quietly raked leaves into large piles on the flat earth until the backyard looked like a village of leaf huts. Then Yang held open the bag, I scooped the piles in, and we carried them to the curb.
Excerpted from Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein. Copyright © 2016 Alexander Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsSaying Goodbye to Yang
Excerpts from The New World Authorized Dictionary
Children of the New World
A Brief History of the Failed Revolution
The Pyramid and the Ass