A master of emotional precision and breakneck plots, Boyle also has a gift for light-touch speculative fiction, conjuring an eerie, genetically modified suburb in the hilariously caustic 'Are We Not Men?' In the title story, a divorced father fails his teenage daughter by becoming addicted to a device that turns obsessing over one’s past into a diabolical malady ... all are portrayed with empathic imagination, acid social critique, and commanding artistry. Boyle’s substantial collection is funny, disarming, and crushing, haunting and beautiful.
...they aren’t sweeping, Planet Earth–style panoramas—melting ice, forlorn polar bears, inexhaustible tempests—but rather, tiny, satirical tragicomedies about individual people. Before climate change, the great subject of Boyle’s fiction was narcissism, explored in novel-length portraits of megalomaniacs (Frank Lloyd Wright; John Harvey Kellogg; Alfred Kinsey) as well as smaller tales of ego and insecurity. That focus hasn’t changed with his eco-fictions; if anything, focusing on navel-gazers is what makes them interesting to read ... In the past, his stories would sometimes shade into indulging the egos they purported to satirize. But in more ecological contexts they become bitter portraits of human folly: He uses male self-centeredness to explore species self-centeredness, showing how one almost always entails the other ... In Boyle’s satires, anthropocentrism is tenacious: Like a virus, it consumes the host; like a species, it adapts to change; like the voice of the devil, it feeds on doubt. Somehow it becomes stronger, not weaker, when climate change beats on the thin walls of human self-conception—or when a force of nature shows up at the door and says we are more responsible than we think we are; we are less different, less exceptional, less human after all. It is a universal, baseline prejudice, one that, in Boyle’s fictions, shapes the feelings of selfish consumers and selfless activists alike. But being able to recognize it, he suggests—to see human self-involvement with brutal clarity—might be the only way to get beyond it.
Boyle uses a sly combination of sci-fi and nostalgia to look back while illuminating the future and all the coming catastrophes, all the ways civilization might be hurtling toward its final act ... It’s too bad the book is marred by Boyle’s tediously stereotypical portrayal of women. It’s an old-school sexism: Women are mean and harpy if they are wives or girlfriends; they’re sex objects if neighbors, and described in textbook cliché ... Aside from this blind spot Boyle is a great storyteller. He writes with the fluidity and grace of a master ... Boyle’s close alternate worlds are reminiscent at times of George Saunders’s stories, but unlike the lefty Saunders, whose protagonists head-butt true ethical dilemmas and take on corporations and capitalism in the name of love and truth, Boyle frames individuals themselves as the problem ... Boyle’s stories feel as if they’re coming from the end of the world, from a time when we will finally be unable to live with what we are and what we have and what we have done.