A first collection of 13 quirky and occasionally fabulistic stories by the author of the complex brainteasing first novel Hallucinating Foucault (1996, not reviewed). Several pieces, including the lyrical title story, are only vignettes: glimpses of islands of calm (such as those “lemon trees”) standing aloof from the contemporary social muddle, or, more pointedly, expressing the polarities of male (conquest and exploitation) vs. female (escape or retaliation). “This is the way we see things,” explains a character in “The Crew of M6” (about documentary filmmakers who unwisely focus on a lesbian community), “there is a state of war, undeclared war, between men and women.” These briskly confrontational, aphorism-studded tales are, accordingly, dispatches from the front—including a flimsy piece about a feminist lecturer who rescues a bird from her cat’s clutches (“Gramsci and the Sparrow”), a woman’s surreally violent farewell to her condescending husband (“The Glass Porch”), and an erotic monologue (“The Woman Alone”) that’s also a declaration of primal female sexual power. The gender emphasis grows wearying, but Duncker’s best stories playfully vary the mix. “The Storm,” for example, a Kafkaesque parable set in an otherworldly “College,” recounts the tug of wills between an authoritarian Master and the callow author of an impertinent iconoclastic Book, whom the Master recognizes as —one tiny fragment of pure freedom that had defeated us.” And Duncker’s finest piece, the novella-length “The Arrival Matters,” offers (in addition to its witty title) a teasing revision of Shakespeare’s The Tempest: A small girl named Miranda is raised on a Caribbean island among a society of women, under the watchful eye of an ironical mother-figure who seems herself torn between the opposing claims of the (ordinarily) battling sexes. Potentially monotonous fiction redeemed by its author’s phrasemaking skill and inventive power. Duncker can get under your skin, but she’s an original and she’s worth reading.

Pub Date: April 27, 1998

ISBN: 0-88001-604-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 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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