Ann Arbor author Alexander Weinstein explores the human experience in the Computer Age with speculative fiction collection "Universal Love"


Alexander Weinstein and his book Universal Love

Author photo by Francesca Albert.

People spend too much time on phones. Kids are addicted to their screens. Technology is ruining how we communicate. 

But what if tech also forces us to figure out how to find connections even in the age of emoji-only text messages?

Some of these issues are at the heart of Alexander Weinstein’s Universal Love, a collection of short speculative-fiction stories about an eclectic group of characters, including a woman who becomes closely acquainted with a hologram version of her deceased mother and a man with depression who seeks electronic surgery to erase his troubled past. 

Weinstein, an Ann Arbor resident and professor at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, says that he can see the addiction to the constant stream of information that our technology affords.

As wonderful as technology can be in connecting people with friends, or in supporting human justice, or in accessing information readily, I can see that my students are becoming increasingly addicted to technology. And it's not just them -- it's all of us. Right now, we’re in a kind of binge-drinking stage of technological addiction. There are emails to check, Facebook posts to like, Instagram photos to upload, Tinder/Grinder profiles to swipe, emojis to send, and endless text messages. At stoplights, I see other drivers, sending off one more message before the light turns green. Next to us in the restaurant is a family eating dinner in silence as they individually play with their smartphones. And at bus stops around the world, grown men and women are playing tiny games on their screens like children.

App makers purposely build addictive qualities into their products, but we still don't fully understand how this affects the long-term health of human-to-human connection, Weinstein says. 

In many ways, we as parents, are becoming peddlers of a kind of digital crack to our children [who] use the devices all the time. … [T]hey go into classic withdrawal symptoms when we punish them by taking away their phones. And so I believe that our new technology is deeply affecting the next generation -- making it harder for them to connect in real life, to engage with the natural world in non-technological ways, and to access a kind of interpersonal intimacy that existed pre iPhones.

Weinstein says the stories in Universal Love also explore themes directly pulled from current events or everyday human experiences.

"Sanctuary" allowed me to focus on the issue of Trump's horrific immigration policy/prison camps in an otherworldly way. I also really love the last story, "Islanders," which speaks in a metaphorical way to the challenges of the father-son connection that happens as one's child becomes a teenager, all told through the metaphor of diving for buried treasures in a post-flooded America.

Weinstein's debut collection, Children of the New World, explores similar speculative themes of humans wrestling with their cybernetic realities. It was successful and well-received, and the story "Saying Goodbye to Yang" was optioned for a film coming out later this year called After Yang starring Colin Farrell. The story follows a dad and his daughter trying to save their robotic family member.

But Weinstein didn't have instant success as an author; in fact, it was a long and winding road to publication, he says.

One of the things that I didn’t understand throughout the early years, was just how much rejection you have to go through as a writer to have success. Before I got my first publication, I had 97 rejections. By the time I put my collection together, I had over 400. But rejection is actually incredibly helpful. It led me to realize two crucial things. I learned that I was going to write no matter whether I got published or not -- which was illuminating to me because I suddenly realized that, at a core level, I was going to be writing for the rest of my life. And I also realized I was trying to write what I thought other people wanted to read and publish, and so I wasn’t yet writing in the voice that was my own -- which was the precise reason I was being rejected. After 97 rejections I decided, well, if nobody’s publishing my work, then I might as well do whatever I want. Which, of course, is what I should’ve been doing all along.

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cat.