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Universal Love    by Alexander Weinstein order for
Universal Love
by Alexander Weinstein
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2021 (2020)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

The short stories in Universal Love by Alexander Weinstein all take place in a future world where technology has taken over, most of the time with disastrous results.

In Mountain Song, the world has been physically destroyed to such an extent that 'the water's gone, the air is going, the birds are dying, there are no jobs left,' and the Rocky Mountains have been flattened by mining. The entire Midwest has been lost to droughts and the Great Lakes are empty canyons, while the towers that allow for virtual reality via chips that are implanted in everyone's brains make so much thrumming noise that no one can sleep any more. Parents and their generation are blamed for allowing this to happen, but our narrator's parents love him and attempt to rescue him and themselves by emigrating to another country.

Sexual love has become impersonal, and commitments are frowned on. The narrator in Comfort Porn has become so accepting of casual sex and so callous about people wanting things or money from her, that she can hardly believe that an old friend just likes her and wants to spend time with her. True Love Testimonials has a number of short amusing accounts from people who are reporting on their experiences in a rather strange dating service.

The darkest stories in this collection involve children. In Childhood, people who can't conceive resort to adopting biological robot children who are delivered to them pre-programmed with earlier memories. They are purchased and delivered to the parents in boxes and need physical adjustment by the parents to grow. Even though the parents we meet love their children and are loved in return, there are dark elements in their world. Drug addicts prey on robot children who are too innocent to realize the danger to them.

In most of these stories, as technology takes over people become more distant from each other and nature. Floods from rising sea levels have destroyed cities and caused millions of deaths in the riots that followed in the story Islanders. There are a few survivors who eke out a living eating mostly fish or shellfish and what they can scavenge from abandoned houses and a mall on other islands that poke up from the drowned city. The narrator is a young boy who lives with his father and misses his mother, who left with another man on his yacht. They have an old truck and a motor boat and they are able to drain fuel from abandoned cars and trucks, but the seas are still rising, and the fuel that can be found is dwindling. The boy is startled and angry when his father introduces him to a woman and her little girl and tells him that they will be moving in together.

I used to read a lot of science fiction when I was much younger, when most of it was hopeful and looked to space travel as a future possibility. This book, which could be called science fiction or fantasy, showcases how advancing technology can destroy interpersonal relationships. Indifference to environmental problems might result in a world that's no longer livable, and most of the stories are too dark for my taste.

The first story, The Year of Nostalgia, is different, though. A father grieving for his recently deceased wife has a chip inserted in his brain that restores her to him as an interactive hologram. There were differences in her that he and his children notice, but being around her is a positive change in the family dynamic. The twist at the end of this story was fun, but in so many of these stories the humor is at best ironic. Is it darkly humorous to read about a robot child being destroyed or mountains being flattened - or just sad? The reader will have to decide.

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