"Look at all this stuff I've got in my head: rockets and Venetian churches, David Bowie and Diderot, nuoc roam and Big Macs, sunglasses and orgasms." With all that stuff in her formidable head—and her essay-ish turn of mind—Sontag's fiction isn't going to be like anyone else's; and it certainly isn't going to be for everyone. But these eight stories, written between 1963 and 1977 for such diverse journals as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and Playboy, are fascinatingly varied, often delightful in their darkly ironic twists, and only occasionally unworthy of the reader effort required. Paradoxically, the two weakest stories are the easiest and the most difficult. "The Dummy" (1963) is neat—fed-up commuter has himself replaced by a robot with a heart of its own—but Roald Dahl would have done it just as well, without the themes sitting on top. Opaque "Dr. Jekyll" also dances its ideas on our heads—about energy, freedom, evil, karma?—and, despite amusing lines and arresting images, Sontag is outshone by Donald Barthelme at this business of juxtaposing legendary echoes with contemporary banalities. But in the other stories, there's naked pain lurking—deflected, straight to the heart sometimes, by whichever oblique format Sontag is using. "Project for a Trip to China" is wild free association on matters Chinese (multiple-choice questions, lists, gags), yet there's an autobiographical panic running through it, like a rat in a maze. "Baby" is the surreal record of a couple consulting a psychiatrist for help with their mad, bad child—a panorama of parental anxiety that throws out chronological order and leaves the psychiatrist's queries to the imagination. In the recent, feverish "Unguided Tour," the pain (seeing beautiful things abroad doesn't help) is perhaps not deflected quite enough, while the allegorical markings in "American Spirits" may go too far in keeping ironic distance. However, "Debriefing," a gallery of despair, Manhattan-style, successfully mixes autobiographical immediacy with social essaying. And in "Old Complaints Revisited," when a Party member quits, offering a farcically complete catalogue of what it means to belong to the Party, a personal scream comes snaking up out of all that essayistic stuffing. Wiry, allusive, and too smart for their own good—read them anyway.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1978

ISBN: 0312420102

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1978

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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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