An intriguing, high-concept effort cut from the same generational cloth as Tumblr and Wattpad.

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RUBIK

Tan’s debut novel is both a love letter to fandom and a sustained meditation on alienation, artificiality, and the sinister nature of capitalism.

In this novel of interconnected narratives that mimics the shifting planes of a Rubik's Cube, characters appear and reappear in stories that pastiche various genres, from anime and video games to sci-fi thrillers and fan fiction. The cycle begins with Elena Rubik, a young 20-something who is struck and killed by a car, leaving behind a ghostly electronic footprint. From there, we meet a succession of guarded misfits: a piano teacher haunted by a seven-note motif and her shy student; an isolated voice-over artist and the former model enamored with his voice (the model’s employer, Ampersand, offers a dark satire of the chain Urban Outfitters). Tan winks at her readers, sprinkling mentions of Leonardo DiCaprio and dream totems à la Inception here, aviator glasses–wearing assassins straight out of The Matrix there. It becomes clear that we’re caught—somewhere—in a potentially bottomless, self-referential piece of fan fiction, of the type characters in the novel would post on a forum called Luxury Replicants. One of the most inventive of these experiments is a narrative treatment for the faux anime series Pikkoro and the Multipurpose Octopus, in which a floating octopus cares for a precocious child. Together, they must defeat HarvestTime, a shadowy corporate entity. This, it turns out, is a reference to the novel’s capitalist bugaboo, Seed, a tech company with recurring viral marketing campaigns and obliquely sinister intentions—a throughline reminiscent of The Matrix via Infinite Jest. Fans of matryoshka-doll novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit from the Goon Squad may be expecting a baseline narrative around which alternate worlds and realities shift, but Tan provides her readers with no such luxury. Like many of the sci-fi films Tan references, each narrative threatens to collapse, revealing its own artificiality, in a seemingly endless hall of mirrors. And while Tan’s imagination is inventive and capacious, her characters can exhibit a kind of fairy-tale flatness, too. This, however, might be part of the game. As one character remarks, “Once the machine is in motion...it doesn’t have to obey us. It’s almost like there’s…[something] that wills the objects, that determines how things will behave when they’re triggered.” Tan is skilled enough to keep readers guessing about what that next mysterious movement might be.

An intriguing, high-concept effort cut from the same generational cloth as Tumblr and Wattpad.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-944700-57-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Unnamed Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

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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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