Mordantly bizarre and trenchantly observant, these stories stake out fresh territory in the nation’s literary landscape.



The 21st-century surge of African American voices continues with these mischievous, relentlessly inventive stories whose interweaving content swerves from down-home grit to dreamlike grotesque.

Cross River, Maryland, rural and suburban at once, exists only in the imagination of its inventor. And in his second collection, Scott (Insurrections, 2016) manages to make this region-of-the-mind at once familiar and mysterious, beginning with Cross River’s origins as a predominantly African American community established by leaders of the only successful slave revolt—which never really happened. Nor for that matter were there ever any sightings of God doling out jelly beans at Easter time in Cross River, as chronicled in the opener, “David Sherman, the Last Son of God,” whose main character is a guitar prodigy struggling through his fraught relations with local clergy and other pious folk to play the sounds only he can hear. (“God,” David remembers somebody telling him, “answers all prayers and sometimes His answer is no.”) In another story, Tyrone, a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at mythical Freedman's University, submits a thesis positing that the practice of knocking on strangers’ doors and running away is rooted in black slave insurrection; he recruits a friend for his thesis’s practical application with lamentable results. There are also a pair of science fiction stories, set in a futuristic Cross River, in which the customs—and abuses—of antebellum slavery are replicated by humans on robots and cyborgs, who, over time, resent their treatment enough to plot rebellion. And there’s a novella, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies, chronicling an academic year at the aforementioned Freedman's University during which professors and students alike struggle with their deepest, darkest emotions. Even before that climactic performance, you’ve figured out that Cross River is meant to be a fun-house mirror sending back a distorted, disquietingly mordant reflection of African American history, both external and psychic. Somehow, paraphrasing one of Scott’s characters, it all manages to sound made-up and authentic at the same time.

Mordantly bizarre and trenchantly observant, these stories stake out fresh territory in the nation’s literary landscape.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63149-538-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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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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