Thirteen stories (four published previously), about strange goings-on from the depths of the jungle to the house next door, serve as a hip but not particularly hypnotic debut collection. The title story transports an entire wedding party of New Age gringos to a remote Central American jungle for a shaman-officiated ceremony, accompanied by an ultra-cool video artist hired for the occasion. His vision of the trip—replete with images of a teeming slum, the group’s armored-car escort, and the shaman making a deal with rebels as the party kicks into gear—is clouded by the same hallucinogenic drink the others have imbibed: when he awakens, the party’s over and his tapes are gone, but he still has the last laugh. Altered states have a different effect in “K2,” as a set designer labors long to build a credible mountain on stage, but when the singer of a washed-out punk band brought in for the final all-night push dies from an overdose, the designer gains a new perspective on his work. In “Mammals,” another band is tuning up for a gig on Nantucket, but a spat between one of the members and his wife over (what else?) drugs sends her to the beach, where she finds a dying dolphin in the dark and tries to save it. —Public Burning,— a variation on the Truman movie theme, features a sociology grad student who mounts 24-hour surveillance on a family renting the house next door. His own all-American family has a few kinks, however, as Mom masturbates upstairs while Dad’s in the basement with his arsenal, getting ready for the day the feds come after him for not paying his taxes. Needless to say, when he finds a camera in the wall, all hell breaks loose. Some tantalizing moments here, but most of these tales come up short in conveying character. It’s not encouraging when a dead dolphin has more depth than the people around it.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-393-04526-9

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 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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