REVIEW SUMMARY: Better than Snow Crash.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Cyberpunk thriller in which Marid Audran must track down a psychopathic killer loose in the Budayeen, a place fueled by cheap thrills, drugs and plug-in personality modules.
PROS: Excellent writing style; taut thriller; fast-paced; satisfying.
CONS: Sequels are currently out of print. But only for a little while more.
BOTTOM LINE: A must-read for cyberpunk fans and for anyone who wants to see firsthand what cyberpunk could be.
George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, is a 1987 cyberpunk thriller that is a perfect example of how exciting the subgenre can and should be. It is the first of three in the Marid Audran series of books. Additionally, there's Budayeen Nights, a collection of related short stories which has received high praise. If the other books are only half as good as this one, they'd still be worth reading.
When Gravity Fails introduces us to the dark, gritty land of the Budayeen, an Arab ghetto that resides in some unnamed, futuristic European city-state. The Budayeen, home to some seriously shady dealings and some equally shady characters, is known for its cheap thrills, prevalent use of drugs and a host of residents who have been modified to accept plug-in personality modules ("moddies") and temporary knowledge add-on chips ("daddies"). With moddies, a person can become anyone else, real or fictional, or live out their most secret desires.
In the Budayeen, it's every man for himself, but if you need help you call Marid Audran, an independent, streetwise gun for hire - except he doesn't use guns. He doesn't use moddies either; against his principles. Marid is just about the only one who walks around unmodified, a decision he believes helps keep his edge.
Marid will need every advantage he can get because a psychopath is killing people in the Budayeen; people close to him. Marid is eventually enlisted by Friedlander Bey, the 200 year old mob boss of the Budayeen, to capture the killer whose moddies include James Bond and a brutal killer named Khan. Marid must use all resources at his disposal - even it means receiving moddy chips - before the killer filets Marid himself.
This was one fun ride. The prose grabs you from the start and immerses you in a fast-paced story in the seedy underbelly of drugs and personality chips. It starts when Marid is making a business arrangement with a visiting Russian dignitary, the events of which pull him into the line of sights of a sadistic killer loose in the Budayeen. Marid, a detective not known for his law-abiding ways, dances a fine line between different threats. There's the killer himself, of course, but there's also police chief Okking, a man who sees Marid as both an asset and a hindrance. There's also the Godfather of the Budatyeen, Friedlander Bey, or "Papa" to his friends and very scared non-friends. Friedlander eventually comes to hire Marid in order to maintain an air of protection around his and Marid's acquaintances who inconveniently find themselves on the wrong side of the living. Friedlander's power over people is evident when he manages to convince Marid to forget his lifelong promise and get the operation that allows him to accept the personality plug-ins. But will it be enough to find the killer? Or, is it killers?
Marid Audran, with his "business is business, action is action" motto, is a great character; tough, streetwise and sporting a blunt, take-no-guff personality that you just gotta love. Drawn with imperfections, fears and loyalty to his friends, Marid is as strong a character as they come. The many supporting characters (drug users; women and men for hire, both real and trans-gendered; assassins) are also vivid and, as we find out, expendable. Steeped in custom, the Budayeen is as much a character as anyone in the book. The excessive use of customary salutations and praises between its residents is simultaneously humorous and creepy because it even occurs between enemies in life or death situations.
But all of these great elements might otherwise fall into a disjoint jumble if it weren't for the fantastic writing style of Effinger. I'm giving serious consideration to putting Effinger in the must-read-to-believe bucket with Theodore Sturgeon and Rex Stout. (For the record, I had this thought even before Audran got scared enough to go against his lifelong principle and get brain implants that would allow him to jack in the personality of Stout's Nero Wolfe character. If I had any doubts about the similarities before, they were immediately dispelled then.) All three authors not only tell a great tale but the language they use gives it an extra level of enjoyment that kicks it a notch or three higher than just "good writing". The vivid words and phrases are engineered to elicit smiles, smirks and immediate understanding while you read them. It's an addictive flavor and it makes this book stand tall.
And it's funny, too. (The book's blurb about the "wry" writing is, for once, accurate.) The scene where Marid haggles with a dirty cop on the price of some drugs is a hoot. The humor made that scene enjoyable; other scenes were made enjoyable by any combination of intense action, colorful characterizations, plot turns and scene setting.
Wrap all this up in a cyberpunk gift wrap, decorate it with a satisfying and gory ending, and you have When Gravity Fails.
It's inevitable for comparisons to be made between this book and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash so I won't try to avoid it. Effinger's book predates Stephenson's by 5 years and is, in my opinion, a stronger book. Don't get me wrong, I liked Snow Crash very much but I thought it was somewhat weighed down by too much Sumerian legend and lore. When Gravity Fails is just as exciting, the writing style just as vibrant, but the prose is leaner and meaner.
The 2005 reissue of When Gravity Fails is a perfect chance to scoop up and devour this highly entertaining cyberpunk classic.