Graham and Ernest move over, you’ve got company.



Bissell follows a nonfiction account of his travels in Central Asia (Chasing the Sea, 2003) with this slim but rigorous debut collection of six darkly passionate stories about Americans who have chosen to visit or live in that most difficult part of the world.

In “Death Defier,” a very ill British correspondent and a healthy American photojournalist become stranded somewhere in Afghanistan. On a hopeless quest for grasses that the local warlord says can cure malaria, the American remembers his haphazard evolution from midwestern nobody to chronicler of death as he heads toward his own fate. While Bissell paints a vivid picture of the Central Asian world, this opening story is primarily a character study, as is the final piece, “Animals in Our Lives,” in which the protagonist, having returned from abroad, is unable to find a place for himself in his old life or with the woman he loves. But in most of the tales, the region and its native inhabitants come to the forefront to defeat the generally hapless and morally iffy Americans. A humorless, by-the-books biologist on her way to study the pollution of the “Aral,” the sea in Turkistan, finds herself kidnapped by a mysterious Russian she assumes is KGB until he introduces her to his blinded, orphaned children. A trust-fund couple buoying up a failing marriage with “Expensive Trips Nowhere” end up in Kazakhstan, where the husband shows his cowardice and the wife finds herself increasingly drawn to their guide, a veteran of the Afghan war whose knowing disdain for his charges does not rule out sex. “The Ambassador’s Son,” a degenerate wastrel, finally gets in over his head when he takes on the local degenerates. In the almost Dostoyevskian title story, a missionary teacher who already considers himself corrupted by his affair with a local man faces ultimate moral defeat before his students.

Graham and Ernest move over, you’ve got company.

Pub Date: Jan. 25, 2005

ISBN: 0-375-42264-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2004

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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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