Slim pickings from London’s wizard of the warped: seven stories (four published previously) and a novella that offer only an occasional glimmer of Self’s former eerie greatness (Great Apes, 1997, etc.), as drug-dealing and hitchhiking scenarios offer little to transcend the purely conventional. A crack dealer named Danny features in both the lead story and the novella, in the first (—The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz—) as a no-nonsense businessman mining a seam of crack he’s found in his basement and using his addict brother as his runner. The wacky appeal of that story disappears in its sequel, “The Nonce Prize,” which turns the tables: Danny needs the fix while his brother calls the shots. Then a frame-up puts Danny in prison for a grisly crime he didn—t commit—the torture and murder of a six-year-old boy. Cleaner and wiser, Danny places all his hopes in a newfound passion for writing, thinking that winning a prisoners” writing competition will be his salvation. Similarly inconsequential is the title story: a hard-driving, part-time shrink puts the pedal to the metal from the northern Scottish coast to London, blasting the CD player, popping uppers, and slopping single malt from the get-go, stopping only for a desultory hitchhiker—a Scottish alkie for whom he has only contempt but whose brain he picks like the professional he is. Only in pieces like “Flytopia,” in which an understanding is reached between a freelance indexer and his house full of bugs, and to a lesser degree in “A Story for Europe,” in which an angelic British two-year-old starts spouting business German, mystifying his doting parents, do the weird trademark touches emerge and satisfy. Not an utter disappointment, but too close.

Pub Date: May 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-8021-1644-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

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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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