“I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked awful, but I always look awful in the mirror. I keep myself going with the firm belief that my real face is much better looking.”
WHEN GRAVITY FAILS by George Alec Effinger is one of the seminal works of science fiction but, sadly, has fallen out of reading order for a lot of modern fans. Which is a sham because it does belong there with Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Hardwired, and Synners. It still has a lot of respect but is something that should probably come up more. It is dark, gritty, imaginative, and presents a vision of the future that not only remains internally consistent but socially relevant. Has it aged 100% well? Not entirely, no, but better than a lot of other fiction from the Eighties.
The premise is that in an undisclosed period of time both the United States and Soviet Union have fallen into competing states as the Cold War didn’t turn hot but both economies collapsed. So, the book is half right. Instead, the Middle East rather than China or Japan has risen to become the dominant power in the world alongside a united Europe. None of this particularly matters, though, because the world for our protagonist begins and end with the Budayeen.
The Budayeen is the Red Light District in an unnamed city somewhere in the Levant. I’m going to guess it’s in Syria, possibly Damascus, but it’s a bit like trying to guess where Springfield is. The Budayeen is full of cybernetically modified sex workers, many of whom are trans, and caters to every possible impulse. Whether sex, drugs, or cybernetic modifications. George Alec Effinger supposedly incorporated many elements of the French Quarter into his book and I have to wonder whether it was different in the Seventies since it is like a much seedier Mos Eisley.
The protagonist is Marid Audran, a self-described small-time hustler who is quite content with his life of grifting and drug use. He has a part-time girlfriend names Yasmin, one of the trans sex workers, and generally has managed to stay on everyone’s good side by acting as a neutral party during business deals. This goes out the window when another associate of his, Nikki, stiffs him on a deal he negotiated to buy out her contract. Right after his latest employer, a Russian politician, is killed right in front of him by a guy modded to be James Bond. Believe me, that’s the least strange element of Marid’s adventures. By the end, he’ll have dealt with everything from international intrigue to alleged serial killers.
The Budayeen is one of those fictional locations that leaps off the page so well that you can taste the air, however foul, and believe in the characters as real people. George Alec Effinger has a talent for writing eccentric larger-than-life characters that stick in your mind. Mike Pondsmith created a roleplaying game supplement for the Budayeen and I can understand why. It’s the kind of place that would be very fun to wander around and experience in a roleplaying game.
Technologically, the book explores two pieces of technology that are interesting to see the results of in “Moddies” and “Daddies.” Neuroscience has advanced in this world to the point that you can upload skills [Moddies] to learn new languages, kung fu, or whatever but only so long as you have the program uploaded via cartridge. Remove it and, poof, it’s gone. Daddies are the more extreme version where people can upload an entirely new personality to replace your existing one. Want to be James Bond, Nero Wolf, or Jesus? All available. For those who like scifi that explores unique tech, I think this is definitely appealing.
The book has some flaws: Marid Audran is a protagonist who needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the plot by outside forces. Dead friends or not, he wants nothing to do with solving crimes or dealing with dangerous people with guns. Which, to me, says that he’s probably in the wrong business as well as location. George’s handling of trans issues has not aged “entirely” well and can probably be put under the trope: “Fair for its day.” Trans characters are treated as normal and an every day part of life but after the fifth or sixth sex worker described in such terms, it starts to look a bit fetishistic. Plus, we’ve come a long way in terms of the psychology of gender, transitioning, and so on that certainly isn’t apparent here in a 1986 book. Race issues are also, um, interesting with Marid as a person of color in a city of very few white people who occasionally refers to himself as a racial slur.
Still, this is a book that is one of those rare occassions that I do feel like I was transported into another world. It is cyberpunk with an emphasis on the PUNK as the world is sleazy, dark, and full of corruption but that just makes it interesting. I think it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for some great crime fiction but don’t mind something that deals with some truly gruesome subject matter. Marid’s experiences are not for the faint of heart and would come with multiple warnings today given he’s dealing with a misogynist serial killer among other unpleasant people.