Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: When Gravity Fails

Book Review: 'When Gravity Fails' by George Alec Effinger

3 / 5 Stars

‘When Gravity Fails’ first was published in hardback in 1986; this paperback edition (276 pp) was published by Bantam Books / Spectra in January, 1988. The cover art is by Jim Burns.

‘When Gravity Fails’ is the first book in the ‘Marid Audran’ trilogy, with the succeeding volumes ‘A Fire in the Sun’ (1989) and ‘The Exile Kiss’ (1991). A collection of related short stories, titled ‘Budayeen Nights’, was released in 2003.

‘When Gravity Fails’ can rightfully be considered a First Generation Cyberpunk novel, one standing alongside Neuromancer, Dr. Adder, Hardwired, and Metrophage….. although, curiously, it doesn’t appear on at least one of the more comprehensive lists of novels of the Cyberpunk Canon.

‘Gravity’ certainly can be regarded as the first novel to mix cyberpunk with the detective / private novel; it is the forerunner of such later novels as the ‘Carlucci’ series by Richard Paul Russo and Noir by K. W. Jeter.

‘Gravity’ is set in a near-future Cairo (although it is never explicitly named as such), in the red-light district known as the Budayeen. Along with brothels, bars, shady merchants, and myriad tourist traps, the Budayeen offers a relaxed attitude towards vice and crime, albeit with the tacit approval of the authorities.

Marid Audran is a young Arab man who earns a living as a fixer and go-between among the personalities in the Budayeen. Marid’s worldly aspirations are modest:, and centered on earning enough money to maintain an apartment, a girlfriend, regular forays into the local night life, and a drug habit.

As the novel opens, Marid has been contacted by a Russian exile, who is seeking to hire someone to find his son, presumed to be in hiding among the narrow streets and alleys of the Budayeen. Hardly has the meeting between the Russian exile and Marid begun, then events take a violent turn. What at first seems to be a random series of particularly brutal, sadistic murders may in fact be the work of a serial killer, and Marid’s friends and acquaintances may be among his prey.

When Friedlander Bey, the ‘big boss’ of the Budayeen, decides that the murders are disrupting the district’s profitability, he approaches Marid with an offer that is not meant to be refused. For Bey wants Marid to be surgically altered, outfitted with neural implants that accept ‘mods’ – computer chips containing personality profiles of persons both real, and fictitious. Once equipped with his new implants, Marid’s task is to track down and eliminate the killer. But time is running out, for there is evidence that Marid himself is next on the list for elimination…..

For the first third of its length, ‘When Gravity Fails’ is an engaging read. The near-future Budayeen, with its eclectic mix of Muslim piety and crass commercialism, is an offbeat locale, one that stands out from the generic East Asian metropolises usually encountered in cyberpunk works. The novel’s large cast of characters is handled in a deft manner , and the incorporation of the private eye / noir elements of the plot is done with the right notes of sardonic humor.

Unfortunately, the middle segments of the book lose momentum, as the author shifts attention from the unfolding of the main plot, to examine - in some lengthy expositions - Marid Audran’s psychological and emotional travails. The final third of the book sees the narrative refocus on the murder mystery driving the plot, but it’s a case of too little, too late, and I found that the resolution of the mystery had a contrived quality. It also didn’t help matters when Effinger’s final-chapter efforts to tie together all of the various red herrings and side plots was confusing, rather than enlightening. To be fair, a lot of private eye novels suffer from this same defect, so I can’t over-criticize ‘When Gravity Fails’ for this defect.

When all is said and done, ‘When Gravity Fails’ is a good entry into the Cyberpunk Canon. If you’re a fan of that genre, you’ll want to have it in your collection.

1 comment:

Snapdragon said...

I would like to start reading more classic cyberpunk. Will has to check this book out.