When Gravity Fails, George Alec Effinger

Bantam Spectra, 1987, 276 pages, C$5.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-25555-X

While I’ll be the first to champion SF’s many virtues and defend it against all unbelievers, I’m not blind to its many fault and won’t pretend to ignore them. One of the biggest of them, for instance, has always been SF’s lack of cultural awareness. Borne out of the social homogeneity of early SF writers (most of which were male, young and Caucasian), the genre’s cultural horizon has always been firmly Anglo-Saxon, from copious references to Shakespeare to a religious outlook that was seldom other than Judeo-Christian. Heck, women had to wait until relatively recently to be granted access to this boy’s club, let alone people of other ethnicities and religions. For a genre that claims a stake to all of humankind’s destiny, science-fiction has often assumed that the future would be all-WASP.

Things are getting better nowadays, thanks to an increased diversity of authorial voices and the slow realization that you can’t get away with such outrageous simplifications in a world where the North-American readership itself is becoming more heterogeneous. Still, the length of the distance to cover can best be demonstrated by the continuing impact of George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails.

In many ways, there’s nothing very special about the plot of this novel. Here, our protagonist is a private investigators (stuck between the criminals and the police, as usual) who is asked by a shadowy crime lord to investigate a series of gruesome murders. Save for some of the background details, the first half of the novel is familiar to everyone with a taste for noir mystery fiction. Only at mid-novel, when the protagonist has to undergo radical body modifications, does it become obvious that, yes, this is true cyberpunk science-fiction, where the street is almost a character and where the future turns out to be much like today… except with more lethal gadgets.

It reads well and feels great, mind you: Effinger’s prose is perfectly compelling and it doesn’t take a long time to be sucked into the story, as familiar as it may be. The prose is simple, stylish, accessible and full of local colour. Indeed that “local colour” ends up being the novel’s main claim to fame.

Because When Gravity Fails takes place in a future where both the United States and the Soviet Union have imploded in dozens of splinter states, essentially wiping them out of the global geopolitical map. For other countries, this means that they get to run their own affairs, without political power plays by one side or another (or, in today’s post-Cold War world, without American influence). The novel takes place in the Budayeen, a dangerously decadent section of an unnamed Arabic city on the south shore of the Mediteranean sea. (Effinger isn’t particularly forthcoming as to the location; I thought some clues may point to Tripoli, but there’s nothing I can refer to in the novel to bolster this claim)

Our narrator is Marîd Audran, a young Algerian/French Arab whose religious convictions vary according to the person he’s dealing with. His girlfriend Yasmin used to be a boy (not that there’s anything unusual with that in Marîd’s world), his liver is bullet-proof and his contacts are to be found anywhere between the police station and the sewer.

Thanks to him, we get to visit the Budayeen and immerse ourselves in a completely foreign culture that’s as fascinating as any of the alien worlds to be found elsewhere in SF. What makes this novel work is the environment in which the story takes place. Even as Bruce Sterling was developing his globalhead, Effinger was right there, showing us that the future wouldn’t necessarily be Americanized. The fun of When Gravity Fails is in large part in hearing Marîd bitch against other ethnicities and explain the particularities of the world he lives in. Here, age-old Arabic traditions meld successfully with high-technology and the result is so memorable that we can only ask why Effinger’s cycle (there are two sequels to this volume) has remained a curio even more than fifteen years later.

No matter; thanks to the cultural content, When Gravity Fails remains relevant, readable and enjoyable even as other cyberpunk novels of the era feel like tired clichés. It’s a good story, but the atmosphere is just terrific: seek out the novel if you have to… it’s well worth it.

[October 2007: The sequel, A Fire in the Sun, is more of the same: The crime plot is standard SF/mystery, but it’s the setting that captivates. On the other hand, it’s more familiar and not quite as fresh. Worth a look for fans of the first volume, but don’t expect to be bowled over.]

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