In Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Children of the New World,” readers meet a couple mourning the cruelest loss, that of their children, though we are made to question that loss from the very beginning. “They weren’t real” they reassure each other (83) as they go about the mundane task of preparing dinner. It’s quickly clear to readers that we’ve entered a twilight zone, a world that seems very like our own, but in which a virtual “New World” has become part of the landscape of human life. It’s a world in which participants can log on and build parallel lives where they can “experience a physical connection that [they’d] always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve” (84). In this world, the narrator and his partner, Mary, build their virtual lives and ultimately have two children, June and Oscar. In this parallel life in the New World, they push the limits of physical sensation by visiting the Dark City where they can explore physical sensations of an increasingly sensual nature, exploring everything from air current rooms to sex as animals. But these experiences result in infection by a computer virus that will increasingly corrupt their New World unless they delete it entirely, children and all. As unreal as the virtual world may have literally been, the loss of their virtual children is agonizing, driving the couple to a support group where the leader insists they acknowledge the emotional impact of their loss in order to move on, holding onto the memory of their virtual lives but re-entering the physical world with literal physical touch as they “hold the others who come” to share their grief (96).
As I re-read this story in the early days of this New Year of 2021, I was surprised to find that my response to the story had changed dramatically since first reading it. I remember, just a few years ago thinking that, while Weinstein had raised an interesting intellectual question for a potential near future in which we increasingly live our lives online and the emotional implications of becoming attached to things that aren’t “real,” there was something a bit annoying about this scenario. An escapism driven by a kind of privileged ennui that made me less than sympathetic to the protagonist’s plight. But that was then. This is now and now we are, in many ways, cut off from the physical world by a raging airborne virus that forces us to remain apart to “stop the spread.” Certainly that loss has made the virtual more important for us – the Zooming, the FaceTiming we do incessantly because we can’t be together in person. But my own experience with the pandemic has given this story a new twist to me. What happens when REAL loss is experienced virtually, when we aren’t able to physically see and say goodbye to those we love?
In August, my best friend of 40 years died of Covid-19 after 3 weeks on a ventilator in ICU. During those awful weeks, her 22 year old daughter kept her loved ones updated every day online but even she was prevented from seeing her mother except when a nurse would call the family on FaceTime to give them at least that little bit of connection. When Leah died, I found out immediately through the digital communication channels we are so dependent on, but I didn’t get to drive 5 hours to hold her hand one last time, watch her coffin be lowered into the ground, hug her daughters and husband and our shared friends. The loss is horribly real, but there is something oddly unreal about it to me that I only realized after reading Weinstein’s story again on Monday as I prepped for class. If virtual loss can feel real, real loss can come to feel virtual if we are not careful. We have to disconnect physically right now (or at least we should, so maybe someone else’s best friend doesn’t die), I know that. But maybe we need to make sure we DO fully re-engage with the physical world when we safely can. I fear that for many of us it would be easy to keep doing everything virtually – it’s easy. It’s less commitment. The real world is hard. But as the support group leader, Bill reminds notes of this hard real world, “This world, with all its pain and loss. This is where we learn to love again” (95).