Intriguing premises that fall short of their promise.


Tales From Finnegan's Wake


Whimsical premises and fantastical plots abound in this collection of short fiction.

Finnegan (Saving Frank Casey, 2008) was a lawyer before writing fiction, and his familiarity with bureaucracy and empty corporate jargon informs these lighthearted stories. The collection has a snappy specificity of place that pops off the page and lends it verve. Without belaboring a description, Finnegan’s reference to the “DramaScent” theatre system in the opening story, “Programming is Everything,” instantly places readers in a weird, futuristic world. At times, though, the particulars are a bit heavy-handed, as in “The Apprentice,” which features a “TV crew from the Jackal Network,” but Finnegan maintains a light touch and a quick wit. In almost every story, the everyday world of the characters is shaken by supernatural or spectacular phenomena. In “Alpha Text,” a research laboratory conducting a cross between time-travel experiments and cryogenics inadvertently clones Christ, while “Songs of the Sea” features what seems to be a kraken but turns out to be something more unexpected. Readers meet a chimpanzee robot, a lawyer who can kill people just by hating them, and what’s either a fallen angel or a psychedelic mushroom hallucination. Finnegan has a talent for coming up with impressive story ideas, but the collection mostly falters in executing those ideas. Though the stories fly by at an entertaining, readable clip, and Finnegan might be applauded for trimming the fat and cutting to the chase, they are more like brief sketches than fleshed-out stories, each ending before fulfilling its intriguing premise. The flat characters don’t help. For instance, after the research scientists discover they’ve brought back Christ, they debate the moral dimensions of their discovery for several pages before the drama promptly resolves itself without much payoff. No character makes a decision or changes in any significant way, and Finnegan tends to let them off the hook too easily. After asking interesting questions that another author might have turned into deeper stories, Finnegan seems content to put the pencil down and call it done.

Intriguing premises that fall short of their promise. 

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-1492189589

Page Count: 158

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Jan. 11, 2019

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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