Smart, engaging and often deadpan funny.

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THIRD CLASS SUPERHERO

A playful experimentalist probes the limits of fiction in this debut collection.

The post-collegiate braininess of many of Yu’s stories is like the music of the Talking Heads, making the familiar seem off-kilter. Among his mathematically audacious fictional strategies, “Problems for Self-Study” casts itself as a series of algebraic equations that attempt to account for the inevitable arc of a marriage, and “32.05864991%” introduces the field of “emotional statistics” and the precision of probability indicated by the word “maybe.” There’s a reversal of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in “Realism,” a story suggesting that what’s commonly accepted as literary realism is unrealistic convention. “The Man Who Became Himself” also takes a Kafkaesque turn in its comic examination of the essence of identity, when a man starts thinking of himself as “he” rather than “I,” as if he is somehow inhabiting the body of another. The closing “Autobiographical Raw Material Unsuitable for the Mining of Fiction” may or may not be autobiographical, may or may not be fiction, and its narrator, “I,” who reads and writes stories, may or may not be the author. In one of the most metaphorically compelling stories here, “Florence” takes the form of science fiction, set a million years from now, when centuries pass in the blink of an eye, and each human exists isolated on his own planet, communicating across the void. The title story might well be the weakest, though the cover it inspires could appeal to the expanding readership for graphic novels, as Yu details the plight of “Moisture Man,” whose powers fail to make the superhero cut. Within these 11 stories, Yu uses language to suggest what language cannot express, as he deals with themes such as the nature of distance, the essence of time and the illusion of self for readers whose attention span has been conditioned more by video games than classic novels.

Smart, engaging and often deadpan funny.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2006

ISBN: 0-15-603081-0

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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EXHALATION

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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