When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger

Science fiction and crime fiction are two genres with largely different traditional audiences, although there are many of examples of writers that have crossed the boundary between them. Asimov, Vance, Silverberg and Moorcock are all giants of SF who have published multiple mysteries – with Vance winning an Edgar Award. Less common are attempts to blend crime and SF into one book (unless we count the techno-spy thrillers), but Asimov wrote his robot mysteries and Bester’s The Demolished Man is as classic of an SF novel as any.* More often than not, these two popular genres have remained largely separated throughout their shared existence in the bookstores.

George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails (1987) is a detective novel that could easily fit in as a title in the Hard Case Crime line of crime titles, but it is also thoroughly science fiction. It centers on Marid Audran, a private eye who stalks the streets of the walled city of Budayeen, a futuristic pleasure-district based on pre-Katrina New Orleans. It is the first of three novels about Audran, forming a series cut short by a confluence of medical, financial and legal circumstances.

WHNGFL1987

Jim Burns cover for Bantam Spectra. http://www.isfdb.org

The title When Gravity Fails is pulled from the lyrics of the Bob Dylan song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and indeed, Effinger builds his Budayeen as an anything-goes environment where the locals prey upon thrill-seeking visitors, as well as each other. The protagonist Audran roams the streets at night, interacting with strippers, prostitutes and drug dealers where some level of illicit activity is constantly going on around him. The city around Budayeen – referred to only as “the city” on the edge of a desert – is part of an Islamic caliphate that spreads across North Africa and the Middle East. My best guess that the city is a future Casablanca, situated 3000 miles from Mecca, teeming with import/export businesses and criminal bosses exercising control over the local government.

Besides all of the drugs, the technology of WGF is driven by personal modification. Plastic surgery and gender reassignment procedures are so common, at least among the denizens of Budayeen, that “real” persons like Audran stand out for their ordinariness. More common, especially among the many prostitutes, are idealized or grossly exaggerated body types. Additionally, many people elect to have their brains “wired” for plug-in modules: moddies impart customized personalities, and daddies grant memories and skill sets. While Audran abstains from the surgeries, he lives off of a diet that is mostly stimulants and intoxicants; this habit is clearly keeping his considerable talents from giving him any more than a hand-to-mouth life as a freelance fixer.

Despite the title and pervasive violence, Effinger wrote WGF with a wry humor that approaches the themes of police corruption, sexual exploitation and lip-service religion with a satirical edge, while keeping the gloom mostly at bay. The stripteasing and prostitution in this book are portrayed as free enterprise – something I point out in light of the “company entertainer” I discussed in my recent review (and debate). Nonetheless, what was hidden – and to be honest, not strongly implied by the author – in Westlake’s The Handle is spelled out explicitly inside the thoughts of Audran as he warms a strip-club bar stool:

… Beneath it all was a constant undercurrent of depression, as if the girls were locked into this job, although the illusion of absolute freedom hovered almost visibly in the air. “Any time you want to quit, honey, you just walk out that door.” The way out the door, though, led to only one of two places: another bar just like Frenchy’s, or the next step down the ladder toward the deadly bottom of the Life: “Hi handsome, looking for some company?” You know what I mean.

One such character has to purchase her way out of her arrangement with a local pimp. This is accomplished when Audrun, whose job comprises of these types of things, sets up a meeting under the governance of an organizational middleman. The two businessmen (Abdoulaye and Hassan) are part of a city-wide criminal enterprise that is deeply imbued with Islamic traditions, and this meeting follows a protocol of honorifics and euphemisms:

… He raised his hands and looked wearily heavenward, reciting an Arab proverb that meant “Greed lessens what is gathered.” It was a ludicrous statement, coming from Hassan. He looked at Abdoulaye. “You have been this young woman’s protector?” he asked. There are many ways of expressing “young woman” in this ancient language, each with its own subtle undertone and shade of meaning. Hassan’s careful choice was il-mahroosa, your daughter. The literal meaning of il-mahroosa is “the guarded one,” and seemed to fit the situation nicely. That’s how Hassan got to be Papa’s ace strongarm, by threading his way unerringly between the demands of culture and necessities of the moment.

The drug-dealing and drug-taking are also shown in a manner that suggests more free choice than anything, although Audran clearly has a psychological dependence on his stimulants. There’s an entertaining haggling scene between a policeman and Audran over a the price of uppers, which could have been made a lot darker. In the world of WGF, it’s another episode of day-to-day transactions.

All of the everyday misdeeds of Budayeen are tolerated by the caliphate, because the district is walled off, and those inside it expect very little protection from the law. When a maniacal murder starts leaving bodies, the police do investigate, but under the thumb of the local crime boss, “Papa” Friedlander Bey. Audran is brought into Papa’s house and recruited to track down the killer, with the aid of surgical brain-wiring:

… I had avoided having my brain wired more out of profound dread than principle. The idea produced terror in me, amounting to an irrational, paralyzing phobia.

“The surgeons will explain it all to you,” said Papa.

“O Shaykh,” I said, by voice breaking, “I do not wish this.”

“Events have moved beyond your wishing,” he replied. “You will change your mind on Monday.”

No, I thought, it won’t be me; it will be Friedlander Bey and his surgeons who will change my mind.

So yes, elective brain-wiring, drug use and prostitution are all things that are done freely by these various characters, but consequently eat away at identity and free choice over time. The opportunities and immediate pleasures offered by the Budayeen are all portrayed to be tempting traps.

Taking into account all of the sex, gore and SF trappings, the plot that follows this world-building reads like a fairly standard “private eye meets homicidal maniac” story we might see in a Lawrence Block Scudder book. As expected, Audun can only fully accomplish his task if he allows his brain implants to corrupt him, and there is a moral and social price to be exacted. I found the resolution of this pursuit a little too simplistic by the standard of the crime fiction I’ve been reading; this is due to all of the world-building Effinger accomplishes. Rather than end up with a Dune-length tome, he wraps up WGF rather quickly and keeps Audrun and Budayeen around for the next book.

Although we’re really pulled in the direction of seeing Budayeen through Audrun’s cynical eyes, Effinger deserves a lot of credit for his appreciably daring SF content. The role of a Qu’ran-based system of laws in a city of prostitutes and transexuals is discussed, as is the use of religious language to smooth over the moral difficulties posed by pay-for-sex negotiations and assassinations. WGF belongs in the “cyberpunk” subgenre of SF, but it is not as complicated as a book like Snow Crash, and we don’t have characters jumping around in each other’s dream-spaces. The detective aspects were not as cerebral as I might like, but the novel accomplishes a fine mesh of two genres, forming a strong opening to a promising series. 7/10.

* The Demolished Man might have more in common with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment than noir fiction or mysteries, however.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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