fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe latest issue of F&SF is stuffed with good reading. I can’t pick a favorite, as I often do; many of the stories hit that sweet spot. Robert Reed’s short story, “Among Us,” is a good example: it’s about the Neighbors, creatures who look exactly like humans but are not, though they may not know that themselves. The narrator studies the Neighbors in every way possible — almost. There comes a moment when he is not willing to let research take its course, and whether that proves something to him, to the researchers, or to the Neighbors themselves (or even all three at once) is not entirely clear. Reed’s story is full of wonder, which is why he remains one of the best short story writers in the field.

“The Blue Celeb” by Desmond Warzel, another fine story, tells the tale of two men who opened a barbershop together in Harlem after they returned from Vietnam. They’ve watched the neighborhood around them change over the years, always opening at 10:00 in the morning, seven days a week. Their shop is now the only storefront on their block that isn’t boarded up, but that hasn’t stopped them. One morning, though, there is a light blue Chevy Celebrity parked in front of the store. It doesn’t belong to either of the barbers, doesn’t belong to any of their customers, and sits there for weeks on end. A cop buddy checks it out, and finds that the car shouldn’t exist; the vehicle identification number isn’t on record and the license plates, though they look completely legitimate, weren’t issued by the State of New York. It’s especially odd that the keys have been left in the ignition and the car unlocked, but it hasn’t been stolen; in the barbers’ neighborhood, that’s almost unheard of. One day, though, a neighborhood drug dealer decides to steal the car. What happens from there turns this into a strong morality tale, and one that will ultimately surprise and delight you.

Matthew Hughes has been known to me up until now for his stories about Old Earth, set in a time when the sun is growing dim and the universe is about to switch from being science-based to being magic-based. “Devil or Angel,” though, does not involve the Archonate or any of the characters Hughes has explored at detail in his previous short stories and novels. This story is set in the early 1990s, well before MP3 players, in a time when CDs were new and iPods weren’t even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye. Jason is the founder and owner of Fate Records in Seattle, and he’s working with a band called E*ville, which is launching its first tour. Unfortunately, one of those airplane accidents that seems to haunt the music industry kills the entire band as well as Jason, and they all find themselves in an afterlife that seems to be a mishmash of various religious traditions. Will Jason ever get together with the woman he met on the plane just before the crash? Will Wilson Proteus, the lead singer of E*ville, get the comeuppance he so richly deserves? And will Wally and Tina ever get past their shyness for long enough to go on a date and fall in love? It’s a marvelously silly story, and I enjoyed every word of it.

Ken Liu has been writing one fantastic story after another, and “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is no exception. It posits an alternate universe where, in the depths of the Great Depression, Japan proposes that a huge public works project be jointly undertaken by itself and the United States to create the Trans-Pacific Tunnel, something akin to a pneumatic tube that transports goods and people from the Pacific Coast of the United States (Seattle, to be specific) to Shanghai or Tokyo under the Pacific Ocean. The story is narrated by one of the Asian workers on the project, born in 1913, and his romance with an American woman at Midpoint City, under the ocean, in 1961. Betty tells Charlie about her son, who is active in promoting civil rights in the American South, which prompts Charlie’s own recollections about the tunnel project, and a hideous secret he has kept for years. The story contains so many wonderful ideas, obviously beginning with the tunnel but also encompassing some hard truths that shine forth from the science fiction setting. Look for this story on awards ballots next year.

David Gerrold’s “Night Train to Paris” is told as if Gerrold were himself narrating a story about his own experience trying to get from Milan to Paris. The only train, he finds, is one that leaves shortly before midnight. He finds a compartment on that train, and is grateful that it is empty; but not for long, because another traveler, Claudio, a husky man in workman’s clothes who smells of tobacco, alcohol and sweat, joins him. Worse, the man is a talker. He takes none of Gerrold’s hints about a wish for silent companionship, but questions him extensively about his camera. Maybe, Claudio says, Gerrold will be able to get a picture of the creature that is haunting the train. It seems an unnamed and unseen something is stealing people off this train, one or two a week. Gerrold is tantalized by his fellow passenger’s alarm and his warning against sleep. The ending of the story is surprising and chilling, truly masterful.

The cover story by Alex Irvine, “Watching the Cow,” tells of a computer error that somehow blinds all the children who were playing virtual reality games at the time the error occurred. The perpetrator of the error is the narrator’s sister, Ariel, and two of the blinded children are the narrator’s. The children have no physical damage to their eyes, but somehow the pathway between the eyes and the brain’s interpretation of the signals received from the eyes has been blocked. Ariel is certain that she can figure out how to fix the problem if only she can avoid arrest for long enough to do it, and the narrator has faith that she can. It’s a story of different sorts of love — husband for wife, father for children, brother for sister — as well as a story that offers an interesting, and terrifying, suggestion of where brain science is leading us.

Judith Moffett’s “Ten Lights and Darks” is narrated by a man writing a feature for his newspaper about animal communicators. Not about those who study how animals communicate, but about those better known as animal psychics, the ones who claim they can tell you what your pet is thinking. In the process, the narrator meets a lovely woman and her dog, Raven, who is terrified of men. And to his surprise, he finds that he seems to be able to pick up thoughts, at least in pictures, from Raven. Wish I could do that with my cat!

“This Is How You Disappear” by Dale Bailey is about how the dullness of living every day can wear you down until you’re your own ghost. Albert E. Cowdrey has another story about Jimmy and Morrie, his ghostbusting team, this time working in Love City, Texas. With book columns by Charles de Lint and Michelle West, a science column about the escape of Earth’s atmosphere by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy, a film column by Lucius Shepard about a couple of films you’ll be glad you’ve never heard of, a funny bit by Paul di Filippo in his “Plumage From Pegasus” column, and a quick write-up about a 1911 novel in a “Curiosities” piece by Stefan Dziemianowicz, it amounts to an especially fine issue.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.