In case you hadn’t noticed this election season, we 21st century people seem to take a perverse pleasure in giving ourselves little scares about how dark and twisted the near future could become.
Black Mirror, Season 3 of which launches on Netflix this Friday, is the epitome of scary near-future tales. But if, like me, you can’t wait that long, I highly recommend you should pick up Children of the New World, a terrifically terrifying debut short story collection by newcomer Alexander Weinstein.
Every one of the 13 tales in this slim volume — one you can easily finish between now and the end of the week — could form the basis of a Black Mirror episode.
As with Charlie Brooker’s anthology show, each story provides a peek into how the future shock of rapidly evolving technology could twist human relationships into nightmarish, unrecognizable forms.
That’s most clear in the story called “Openness,” the premise of which may remind you strongly of what many people consider to be the best Mirror episode so far, “The Entire History of You.” That show posited a future in which we’re able to record, replay and share all of our memories — the result of which drives one jealous lover into the depths of madness.
“Openness” offers a world where everyone shares telepathic “layers” of information — the most superficial layers for strangers, deeper ones for friends and family, deeper still for couples. Almost nobody actually talks, but the most daring share everything:
It’d become increasingly common to see the couples in Brooklyn, a simple O tattooed around their fingers announcing the radical honesty of their relationships to the world. They went to Open House parties, held in abandoned meatpacking plants, where partiers let down all their layers and displayed the infinite gradations of pain and joy to strangers while DJs played breaknoise directly into their heads.
Needless to say, for the couple in the story, sharing absolutely every deep dark secret doesn’t work out too well. As in “The Entire History of You,” the only winner here is the raging green monster of jealousy.
Thirteen short stories about couples, families and society in the near future that give ‘Black Mirror’ a run for its money
That isn’t the only story that follows the model of romantic couples torn apart by mental tech problems. In another story, a man doesn’t know if his girlfriend is real or a memory implant. Another couple lose their memories when they go deep underground, in a hyper-consumerist world, as Buddhist terrorists.
But as befits the title, a large number of the stories focus on parent-child relationships and the wedge technology can drive through them.
There’s a couple who buy a cybernetic sibling for their adopted daughter, only to suffer heartbreak when he breaks down. Another build a happy life in a virtual world with virtual kids, only to discover their house is corrupted by spam versions of people and will need to be rebooted, erasing their children entirely.
The other aspect of this collection that you might recognize from Black Mirror: a disturbing warning about how sexuality can be used when the lines between the public and the pornographic keep blurring.
What the Prime Minister was forced to do to a pig on live TV in “The National Anthem” is the best known version of this, but more hideous still was the next episode in the anthology show, “Fifteen Million Merits” — set in a world where you have to pay to stop porn from appearing on the walls of your tiny apartment.
Children of the New World has similarly queasy moments. A washed-up Olympic skier has sex with a woman who wants him to wear special contact lenses so she can post the result on her YouTube page. In another story, people can only have sex by uploading large files into each others’ brains. Then there’s the future teenage craze for “mushing,” which … yeah, I’m not even going to describe that one.
Many of the characters desire an escape from this sad, seedy, hypersexualized future. An open marriage, where a husband and wife meet paramours virtually while wearing body suits, is torn apart when their neglected son does the one thing nobody dares do any more: he leaves the house.
If there’s any criticism to be made of these stories — and I rarely say this about anything — it’s that they’re too short. The “mushing” story, for example, the only one that isn’t first person, is nothing but a set of future dictionary entries — clever, but also maddeningly unfinished. A story about a man who seeks enlightenment via illegal brain stimulant in Kathmandu could have been a novella, but it’s over before you know it.
Turning these stories into a season of Black Mirror would require a significant amount of fleshing out. Then again, your terrorized imagination will probably fill in a lot of blanks for you — and you’ll be primed and ready for the show’s next season.