Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

Truth be told, I'm something of a sucker for a book with good promotional copy. An engaging plot summary or a catchy quote from an established authors goes a long way toward pulling me in. George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails has both. An endorsement from George R.R. Martin graces its front ("wry and black and savage"), while on the back appear promises of a bleak, Middle Eastern cyberpunk that "was hailed as a classic ... on its original publication in 1987." That sealed the deal for me, but I forgot to ask myself one question: If Gravity was such a stunner, why then did it fall into obscurity after Effinger's death in 2002?

Like everything else in the ghetto called the Budayeen, Marȋd Audran is available for a price. If you want him to hustle or investigate or suss out secrets in this amoral section of the city, then you need to pony up the dough -- and agree to a few preconditions. Marȋd won't carry needle or seizure gun, no thank you. Call him a bad Muslim all you like, but he's still going to pop an astonishing variety of pills while on the job. And he'll never, ever get his brain wired, never slot a moddy or a daddy, those data modules that grant their wearers new personalities or knowledge. At least that's how Marȋd always ran things before the killer appeared in the Budayeen, a murderer who alternately picks off his targets like trained spy or eviscerates them with the sadism of a madman. The trail of bodies left in his wake will thrust Marȋd into international intrigues and bring him face to face with a 200-year-old gangster who thinks more about his afternoon coffee than he does of taking human life.

To even casual fans of SF, it will likely become apparent within the first couple chapters of Gravity just how much it borrows from Neuromancer. Stimulant-addicted protagonist? Hallucinatory, addled sidekick? Surgically enhanced woman of ill-repute? Check, check and check. Unfortunately, Effinger lacked Gibson's literary chops, his style often feeling a bit bland. Indeed, typographical errors pop up from time to time in the edition I was reading, inconsistencies that really ought to have been caught by an editor. Still, the novel has virtues. The plot recalls classic hardboiled -- a Raymond Chandler quote inaugurates the proceedings -- and the ending is surprising and shocking. Also, Gravity takes faith seriously without becoming credulous, pointedly (and rightly, in my view) critiquing the Islamic concept of jihad without descending into the outright antipathy toward religion that marks so much speculative fiction. Effinger may not have penned a masterpiece, but Gravity is worth a read if you enjoy cyberpunk in the least.

(Picture: CC 2008 by kirainet)

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