The Big Idea: Alexander Weinstein
Is love feasible in this bleak world we live in? Is connection possible in a world where everyone seems so blatantly disconnected from each other? Author Alexander Weinstein says it is! Read on to see how he expresses a hope for love in this world in his newest release, Universal Love.
In the early years of the new millennium, we often worried about our battery life. We needed outlets, power banks, rubber sleeves with extra juice. We asked shopkeepers about passwords, made sure there was wi-fi flowing through the atmosphere of every place we settled, and found charging stations at the airport where we could sit, wires stretching our bodies to small islands of electricity as other wires hung from our ears. From the fortresses of the Social Media empires, they stressed that the addictive apps they provided us with were all about connection. We were one global community, they said, as we sat scrolling through our phones, alone on busses and subways, laughing silently through lol echo chambers, our faces reflected in the selfies and dead screens of our smartphones.
We weren’t alone—it seemed everyone was looking for connection. And it wasn’t just electricity we needed. We wanted human connection as well. It was, after all, what the internet had promised us. We were searching for love. And if we couldn’t find that—then sex at least. There were plenty of apps to find the latter, all advertised with promises for the first. And as we scrolled through face after face, trying to open our hearts, we also learned to swipe people into the trash more quickly. We went on hopeful dates, and when we were in the bathroom, our dates scrolled through messages from other, hopeful dates. We unfriended. We blocked. We ghosted. We deleted our dating apps, sickened by the emptiness of seeking love online and endless unsolicited dick pics, and then we uploaded the very same apps a couple weeks later.
As a speculative fiction writer, I find the ways our lives, hearts, and families are being rewired by cybernetics both fascinating and worrisome, and it was the omnipotence of our internet culture alongside our secret hopes for love that led me to write the stories in Universal Love. Because though our interactions had become increasingly robotic (monetizing algorithms & getting-more-clicks are now legitimate personal goals), I sensed that we were yearning, more than ever, for real human connection, and it seemed that beneath all our clicking, scrolling, emailing, and endless messaging, there was a deep need for love arising in our culture.
Speculative fiction often begins with a what-if. What if we tried replacing lost loved ones with holographic replicas? What if we purchased sentient robotic children and they began to use drugs like regular teenagers? What if the world became flooded from global warming and a father and son were stranded on a small island with diving gear, exploring the drowned world below? Such what-ifs conjure vast landscapes, and part of the pleasure of writing is the world-building these stories demand. And yet, speculative fiction cannot simply rely on a premise or it risks sacrificing character. For my stories to succeed, they have to go deeper than simply a what-if plot/premise; they need to explore the hearts of the characters. To achieve this goal, I must intertwine something that I deeply care about—my fears, hopes, and dreams—and give them to the very characters within the stories.
This doesn’t merely deepen the stories, it deepens the mystery of the writing process itself, because the what-ifs suddenly take on new lives as much more meaningful metaphors. A story about children getting cybernetic brain implants to telepathically access the internet (We Only Wanted Their Happiness) suddenly becomes a way to speak to the struggles of limiting our children’s data usage. Holographic parents reveal a truth about the mystery of my own parents and the importance of connecting deeply with the people I love. And a father and son diving for buried treasure is secretly also a tale of watching my teenage son prepare to sail away for college, and the treasures I hope he takes with him.
Writing about love is challenging. There’s always a risk that the work will be overly sentimental, cliché, or schmaltzy. The process itself requires a great deal of vulnerability. For writing about love is similar to loving in real life, it requires opening your heart, and part of the writing process for Universal Love involved finding ways to tap into the deepest parts of my own tenderness. I found these moments through my life as a father, as a partner, through yoga and meditation, and by listening to music which directly works to open the heart (such as Krishna Das and Nada Sadhana).
Interestingly, heart-filled writing is not always good writing. I tend toward the ecstatic too easily in first drafts, and when I do, my language becomes overly verbose and epiphanic. Unlike learning to love in real life, the editing process involved a great deal of holding back, allowing the element of love to remain beneath the surface of the stories rather than always being openly expressed on the page. My challenge was maintaining the humanity of my characters while realistically portraying their struggles within a world which has often gone awry. And though I may want my characters to find love, transform, and transcend, I often had to cut overly happy endings from early drafts. The robotic children in my story, Childhood, were indeed addicted to smoking their own emotion chips, the children of We Only Wanted Their Happiness had learned to use their brain-implants for authoritarian power over their parents, and the air in Beijing was nearly unbreathable, forcing my characters to choose between air tanks or food.
In this struggle of portraying both love and grief, there’s a truth about being alive. For as much as I’d like to write about the beauty of parenthood, I’ve also failed in the battle against my son’s data-usage and we’ve had the teenage fights all parents struggle with. And right alongside my memories of those fights, are memories of a snowy Michigan day, when I found cross-country skis and my son and I set out together through the woods, huffing and happy as we struggled to learn.
It’s this constant back and forth, between moments of grace and the battle against losing our human connection that fuels my writing. Because within the dark political and cybernetic frontiers of our increasingly digitized reality, there’s simultaneously a great wealth of human kindness. It’s present when we gather together to listen to musicians at concerts, or hear poetry readings, or in the hugs of our friends and family at the in-person gatherings we once went to. During this pandemic, our choices to stay inside—alone and online—also demonstrate a love for others, and our human connection has emerged in beautiful ways. In Italy, when people stepped onto their apartment balconies to create a cross-balcony concert together, or when a lone trumpet player played “Imagine” for a morning solo—what was revealed was the beauty of the human heart, projected on all of our screens to see.
Beneath the robots, holographic parents, and virtual-reality-love-making couples of my speculative worlds, are stories of my own life. The challenge for me has always been to give my fiction a piece of what I hold sacred. Sometimes its fatherhood, kindness, or compassion, other times it’s the vulnerability of heartbreak, grief, or the nostalgia of parenthood, where one day your child is holding your hand, and the next they’re waving goodbye. These are the hearts of my characters, and the work of every story I write is to risk such truths in my fiction. While my near-future landscapes are sometimes dystopian, the stories in Universal Love believe a deeply utopian idea: that we can care for each other more deeply, that we can love one another more fully, and that we can work together to make this world a better place.