THE QUANTITY THEORY OF INSANITY

This is Self's first book, an interconnected collection of stories published in England in 1991 but held back in the US until the moment Self attained trans-Atlantic culthood. Self (My Idea of Fun, p. 243, etc.) has previously proven his skill at phantasmagoria, but he's less impressive here. Sharply tweaking a spectrum of mental health and social work philosophies, Self is on a mission to point out that therapists who treat delusional problems are themselves the ones with the problems. In the title story, a mock academic paper, a psychology researcher explains how he came to discover the remarkably unscientific Quantity Theory—which holds that there's a fixed amount of sanity in any given society at any given time, and a small patch of insanity in one area of that society will result in a small patch of sanity elsewhere. (Eventually ``psychic field disruption,'' planned insanity to create sanity for someone else, becomes a popular self-help routine. It's just the karma theory, given a spin of European nihilism.) Self's working method for this collection becomes apparent too quickly: He hits on a kooky, half-true theory, then backs up into his parking space. But his stories are contrived in their efforts to shock us, and the ideas themselves are like outtakes from undergraduate stoner-philosopher what-if sessions. It's only when Self gets away from his adman mentality to really do some great, not readily marketable writing that we catch glimpses of his brilliance—as in ``Mono-Cellular,'' which shifts from a first-person account of experiencing life through the senses into fabulous elliptical blather, like the best of the late-period, whacked-out CÇline. Those sympathetic to Self's fantasies, which can be fun-house amusing, should read where he came from to know how much he's evolved.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-87113-585-X

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1994

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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EXHALATION

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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