When Gravity Fails

by George Alec Effinger

Cover image

Series: Budayeen #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: December 1986
Printing: January 1988
ISBN: 0-553-25555-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 276

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Marîd Audran is a freelance half-Algerian detective of sorts who works in the Budayeen, the most dangerous part of an unnamed large Islamic city some time into the future. At the start of the story, his new client is murdered in front of him by someone using the personality implant of James Bond. Then someone starts going after his friends. Unravelling what's going on takes him into contact with the most powerful forces of a city that works on handshake agreements and personal connections.

This is the second noir detective novel with an SF twist that I've read recently. The previous was Jonathan Lethem's later book, Gun, With Occasional Music, with which this one shares enough similarity that I wonder if Lethem used it as inspiration. Both have strong resonance with Raymond Chandler and similar classic detective novels (Effinger also cunningly weaves in a bit of Nero Wolfe), and both involve a rather excessive amount of drug use. Effinger's world features a dizzying variety of rather effective pharmaceuticals that Audran employs regularly; similarly to Lethem's hero, he does this mostly to reach more functional emotional states.

Effinger's twist is two-fold. First, both body and personality modification is common in his world, and perhaps partly because the Budayeen (where nearly all the action takes place) is the red-light district, much of that body modification comes in the form of male-to-female and female-to-male partial or total conversions in prostitutes or exotic dancers. Nearly everyone has jacks fitted into their brain that can take both "moddies," complete personality overlays, and "daddies," auxilliary chips that provide the wearer with some specific knowledge (such as another language) or other targetted mental change. Prostitutes regularly use moddies to provide whatever personality their client wants. Effinger explores some of the implications and risks of this through the plot.

Second, and more notably, the setting is Arabic and Islamic. It's still a big city and a story that takes place mostly around strip clubs and bars; Islam here is no stronger as a moral force than Christianity is in noir novels set in the US. However, the feel of the culture is distinctly different. Effinger plays with greeting rituals and standard sayings and responses, part of the story takes place during Ramadan, calls to prayer show up as part of the background and timing of the story, and other tidbits of Islamic culture are scattered through the book. The changes are mostly surface and I don't know the culture Effinger was drawing from well enough to know how good of a job he did with the details, but it creates a feeling of well-grounded exoticism for an American reader that made the story feel different than its well-explored genre roots.

The strongest aspects of this book are the background and Audran himself. The first-person noir style requires a strong voice to carry it, and here I think Effinger did a better job than Lethem. I liked Audran, but more to the point, I believed in Audran. He felt like a person of his culture; his friends, interactions, and haunts had depth and realism. I could believe this person had a life, a past, and a network of friends.

The plot, on the other hand, left something to be desired. I was hooked at the start, and Effinger manages suspense well, but I found the end unsatisfying. The motives for the initial murder turn into an international intrigue plot that seemed very out-of-place in Audran's world, and the details are just handed to him at a few points in the story. There's plenty of suspense as he tries to protect his friends and navigate the political waters of the city, but not much in the way of unwinding plots or puzzling through mysteries. In several places, Audran is shoved into decisions that provide emotional drama but which are dubious, or at least forced, from a plot perspective. The book also ends on something of a downer and an emotional reset at the same time, which left me feeling odd about the honesty of Audran's reactions to the changes in his life. This is the first of a series, so some of that can be expected, but the ending for me fell into the crack between a setup for a continuation in the next book and a reset for a disconnected series featuring the same character.

I think When Gravity Fails feels more stale now than it would have when originally published. The cyberpunk edginess of noir merged with personality implants doesn't feel as original now and the sophistication of fictional treatments of such implants has grown. With less reader fascination with the background, more of the weight of supporting the novel falls on the plot, and it's not always up to the challenge. This is still a good book, mostly on the strength of the unusual background and a strong viewpoint character, but it's not one I'd particularly seek out.

Followed by A Fire in the Sun.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-18

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