A dim book not likely to improve its author’s flickering critical reputation.




Eight previously uncollected stories, most written in the last ten years, from the author best known for his National Book Award–winning Middle Passage (1990).

Fantasy appears in the title story, with a young Martin Luther King having a vision of universal plenitude and international charity while raiding the fridge for a midnight snack; in an initially charming fable about a West African king whose artistic creations bring his people prosperity but can’t prevent their eventual enslavement (“The Gift of the Osuo”); and in the story of a liberal corporate executive undecided about whether to offer a plush job to a superbly qualified white woman or to a diffident, stiff-necked—but obviously deserving—black man (“Executive Decision”), a piece that has virtually no development or tension and is characterized thus in the “Publishing History” that follows its text: “Johnson thinks it’s quite possibly the only published short story that dramatizes the issue of affirmative action,” a sentiment either inaccurate, or meaningless, or both. Elsewhere, a coed’s unfortunate romance with an African dignitary’s son (“Cultural Relativity”) takes a hoary Aesopian twist; a Kafkan nightmare overtakes a citizen who has underpaid a new tax levied on dreaming (“Sweet Dreams”); and a one-joke anecdote describes how an insomniac college prof finds a cure for his misery by attending a faculty meeting (“Better Than Counting Sheep”). “Kwoon” is somewhat more substantial, as Johnson enters the thoughts of its two protagonists: a young martial-arts instructor and the hard-bitten ex-merchant marine who nearly kills him during a “sparring” exercise. Yet the story has a tenuous, unsatisfying ending. Far better is “The Queen and the Philosopher,” a witty tale of the 17th-century philosopher Descartes’ debilitating service to Sweden’s Queen Christina, who has summoned him “to serve as her personal tutor in philosophy and mathematics.” It’s inventive, breezy, and not—as Johnson’s fiction frequently seems—inordinately pleased with itself.

A dim book not likely to improve its author’s flickering critical reputation.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-7432-6453-3

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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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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