The survival of the cynics—in an abrasively intelligent Darwinian debut collection. Gilbert's ten stories, framed by two that include the Gal†pagos Islands as a sometime setting, show us characters creeping and crawling along a bumpy course of moral evolution. Although they've reached a relatively advanced point as late- 20th-century humans, that achievement brings them little happiness. These highly evolved people, in fact, seem mostly corrupt, confused, or amusingly, consciously callous. Maybe they have to be like this—a barrelling fighter's instinct appears to be their main means of preservation and their last source of defense, and Gilbert's unsentimental probing of their chances is both raucous and searching. He's unafraid of ugliness, which lends his fiction realism and sardonic thrust. In ``Anaconda Wrap,'' for instance, the potentially clichÇd vignette of a has- been Hollywood producer's one-night stand with his assistant is redeemed, comically, not by true love but by the brio of a small yet brutish mishap: While selfishly lost in the throes of her passion, this cold, base young assistant accidentally breaks the bone in his finger. Another man caught in a midlife crisis (``At the DÇjÖ Vu'') concludes a hangover by throwing up underwater at a sunny island resort, then watches incredulously as multicolored fish (unavailable or uncooperative while he studiously snorkeled) arrive en masse to swallow his upchuck. But Gilbert's moral scale is more panoramic than just this, and he also writes persuasively about war's consequences, about the rude pragmatists who call themselves TV journalists, about the urge to kill, and about the difficulty of telling one's story—and being heard. Interplay between weary life-veterans and blameless or frightened neophytes gives much of his writing its zest. The subtle Darwinian thematic harmonies of the stories, suggesting Gilbert's promise as a novelist, also distinguish a book that gives this basic advice: ``Keep moving. Please keep moving. Just survive.'' To the cynics go the spoils.

Pub Date: April 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-684-84306-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1998

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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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