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Review: Cigarettes and Coffee by Ramsay Shehadeh

Published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, January/February 2023 Edition -13 pages.

Why You Should Read This Story

Asimov's - Jan-Feb, 2023 coverCigarettes and Coffee is a story of the little guy going up against the big guy, who has suspicions about the little guy. It is set in a dystopic, surveillance-state Texas, USA. Folksy, small-town Sheriff Jake plays realpolitik with some too-confident-in-their-tech government agents. Outright rebellion is out of the question, so sabotage and trickery are the tactics of choice. 

Shehadeh’s portrayal of small-town people’s distrust of government types is perfect and readers are quickly hooked into rooting for the underdogs.  The stakes are high, and the tech is ominous. Cigarettes and Coffee is a quick ride to a believable ending, and the hacking theme is in-your-face tech fun, even if it is darned serious. 

For Writers (Spoilers ahead)

In Cigarettes and Coffee, Shehadeh uses strong setting and character development early on to hook readers.

First with Dialogue and Action…

All the townspeople intuitively understand what the Feds are trying to do with surveillance and the latest android investigator. This is with the exception of hapless Deputy Miller who seems to be in the story mostly to move things along and help develop the character of Bel, the hacker.

If you have ever spent time with rural people, you know that many mistrust outsiders and government agendas. Cigarettes and Coffee captures this characteristic concisely in Sheriff Jake’s interactions with Missy Granger, a town elder. These two went to high school together, and they have a small-town familiarity. In a few lines of dialogue about an unwelcome android, Shehadeh paints the setting.

Sheriff Jake: “…they sent a bot to do the asking.”

Missy: “No they did not…Llewellen [her husband] won’t have it. You know how he is.”

Sheriff: “I do. That’s why I’m talking to you.”

Missy: “Don’t seem natural.”

The sheriff and Missy conspire to get Llewellen out of town so Missy can answer the android’s questions. We learn here that the sheriff is a player. 

Shehadeh develops the two main characters through other actions, as well as their dialogue.  First, Sheriff Jake “hasn’t got the stomach for lonesome” so he avoids going home at night and spends two hours driving through the desert. Second, the brilliant and judgmental hacker, Bel (who lives with Deputy Miller but used to be with Sheriff Jake), regularly harasses Miller and dumps both him and his forbidden surveillance phone in the Texas Gulf while on vacation.

…Then, With Physical Appearance

Shehadeh uses physical appearance to help develop some characters, especially Agent Ashburn and the new android. With Ashburn’s out-of-place hairstyle and clothes, we know he is an outsider.  His facial features are described in a series of contradictions, ending with his “cruel mouth.” Meanwhile, the android has a “Granite profile.”

This excellent character development, early in the story, quickly sets the stage for what is to come. 

On Dystopias and Government Overreach

Most science fiction being published these days has dystopian elements. The only hope in Cigarettes and Coffee is that the locals might be able to fend off the dystopia for a while, delaying the inevitable. Shehadeh executes this theme very well.

From an esthetic point of view, I look for and try to write more hope into stories. I think our society needs it. See my post titled, Is Hopepunk a Thing? My only criticism of Shehadeh’s work here is that it perpetuates an “us and them,” “big government is naturally evil” perspective. I get lots of that elsewhere.

Still, giving credit where credit is due, Cigarettes and Coffee is a VERY well-written story.


Borrow the Jan/Feb, 2023 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction from your local library or purchase it online directly from Discount Mags.

Ramsay Shehadeh Bibliography on IFSDB –

Ramsay Shehadeh Bios (there is not much out there on Ramsay at this time)

Excerpt from Red by Ramsay Shehadeh on –

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