Thursday, January 15, 2009

Friday’s Forgotten Books: When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger (1987)

Patti Abbott was kind enough to ask me to participate in her Friday’s Forgotten Books series again. You could make the argument that choosing a novel nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards and handsomely reissued in 2005 means I have a loose definition of the word “forgotten.” But as far as I’m concerned, nowhere near enough people know about George Alec Effinger – and that includes crime fiction readers.

When Gravity Fails is the first of Effinger’s novels set in the Budayeen, the shady quarter of an unidentified Middle Eastern city in the late 22nd century. It’s the place Marîd Audran calls home. A street-level operator always willing to do a favor provided you meet his price, Marîd is the Budayeen’s answer to both Jim Rockford and Matt Scudder. He finds himself drawn into a string of brutal murders that target Friedlander Bey, the quasi-benevolent 200 year old kingpin of the Budayeen. Bey in turn drafts Marîd into becoming his personal private investigator.

Effinger’s world, rich in detail, is one where the West has long been in decline and life has taken on a decidedly Islamic cast. Into it Effinger injects an array of societal and technological evolutions. Abuse of sophisticated neurological drugs. Elaborate transgender surgeries. And that most desired of upgrades, cranial modification. Once you’ve been wired, you can chip in personality modules (“moddies”) that allow you to become anyone you wish, or “daddies” that temporarily give you whatever skills you require. In the first chapter, a man wearing a James Bond moddy commits a cold-blooded execution. Later, after being forced by Bey to undergo modification, Marîd becomes Nero Wolfe to solve the case. Effinger’s deft depiction of how devout believers deal with these advances is one of the book’s joys.

Effinger followed up Gravity with A Fire in the Sun and The Exile Kiss. Additionally, several short pieces are collected in Budayeen Nights. They’re all worth reading for fans of mystery and SF alike. Effinger’s Budayeen tales are the rare works of speculative fiction that function as a crystal ball. More and more it seems that the world he created in these pages is the one we’re rushing toward headlong.