It was Brian Atterbery who introduced the idea of ‘fuzzy sets’ in reference to works of fiction which do not fit comfortably within a genre, rather at the margins, perhaps even touching upon or existing mostly within other genres. By default, the implication is that a center exists—an effable something that can be pointed at in representation. Reading George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails (1987), first novel of the Budayeen series, it’s striking how stereotypically cyberpunk the novel is. Featuring computer chips directly inserted into the brain that modify personality, body modifications between the genders, and a noir crime storyline, a mainstream chassis has been stripped down and fitted out with Neuromancer parts. It’s a novel at the core of cyberpunk, nothing fuzzy about it.
When Gravity Fails is the story Marid Audran. A private eye for hire living in a seedy disrict called Budayeen (an obvious analog to Effinger’s own French Quarter of New Orleans), his life of winning and losing a buck here and there and breaking up and getting back together with his transsexual-stripper girlfriend Yasmin has a charm he can live with as long as he can have his independence. While others around move to the lull and sway of implants and mods in the bustling Arabian city, Audran chooses to go unaltered. But the freedom he holds dear begins to disintegrate when a trio of friends (hookers working in a brothel near his favorite bar) are murdered, one by one. Seeking out the local police and mafia for answers, events escalate to the point Audran finds himself standing before the local Bey and facing a choice that is, in fact, not a choice. Budayeen getting even bloodier and messier as colleagues and enemies are dragged into the mayhem, Audran must fight with all he’s got to preserve not only his friends who are still alive, but himself.
Thus Orson Scott Card’s back cover copy “this is what cyberpunk will be when it grows up” is a statement I couldn’t disagree with more. From the source texts of cyberpunk to the myriad related fiction that has evolved since, When Gravity Fails falls squarely in the middle in terms of sophistication, style, import, purpose, and, most importantly, the maturity of the sub-genre. Effinger employs the aforementioned standard tropes of cyberpunk using the mode of mainstream crime fiction. The classic private eye who can’t seem to catch a break, a mysterious string of murders, sex and drugs, notes from the serial killer, and a conclusion that tucks the mystery nicely into bed—everything is familiar to the genre reader (even of the 80s when it was published), and most everything would be familiar to the reader of crime novels. There is nothing experimental, no grand statements regarding humanity, or profound moral message. Simply put, there is nothing which renders Card’s words more than empty backcover copy.
This is not to say there are not unique aspects to When Gravity Fails, however. I’m no expert on Islam or Middle Eastern culture, but Effinger’s presentation of a future wherein Islam rules North Africa, not to mention the the cultural elements which come in tow (particularly the lingual aspects), feel authentic. As if he’d spent time in the region, or at least done a lot of research, Audran’s encounters, from the Bey to street people, are filled with genuine-feeling dialogue. The superficial respect given to religious custom in public, whereas off the street it is ignored in favor of sex, drugs, and rock and roll has a bona fide, realistically human portent—a point of course, that would be debated even by Middle Easterners themselves.
But, as mentioned, beyond the usage of the Middle East as a motif, Effinger doesn’t delve into the larger political or social implications. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s later Arabesk trilogy—a trilogy with much the same noir crime/future Arabian setup—instead looks deeper into Islam. Questioning some of its basic principles (e.g. women’s rights), he likewise presents the perennially anthropological side, all to positive, more human effect. Effinger does not do this. He instead uses the religion as a means to tell a story, which is not a problem in itself, but does fail to achieve the same level of sophistication as Grimwood.
In the end, When Gravity Fails is a mainstream thriller that uses a handful of major cyberpunk tropes in quality fashion. Set in a futuristic Islamic empire, it features a classic hard-luck private eye who doesn’t make things easy for himself, trying to get to the bottom of a string of murders in his seedy neighborhood. Personality modifiers and mind enhancers play a strong role, as do sex changes and other body modifications, with the basic storyline remaining dependent on detective noir. Written in easy prose, paced nicely, and paying off plot-wise, it is an enjoyable read, but doesnot possess the same depth of some of Effinger’s other works. Not pretending to be anything else, this is cyberpunk at the center of the sub-genre.