When Gravity Fails
George Alec Effinger
Despite my deep and abiding love for cyberpunk, I am shockingly ill-versed in its canon. Aside from William Gibson, my knowledge of actual, classic cyberpunk is spotty at best. I am familiar with its tropes because cyberpunk is largely synonymous with the era I grew up in; anyone who started using computers with DOS 4, logged on to a local BBS, thought Prodigy was sinister, and once used Telnet on a daily basis does not need critics to explain what all those crazy people were doing when they jacked in. So it is that my cultural knowledge and overall geekiness has obscured my inexcusable literary ignorance. It is time to remedy this one step at a time.
Effinger decides to answer the question: What happens to cyberpunk when you take out the computers and hackers, pull the story out of Asia or Silicon Valley, and replace everything with disreputable Muslim ghettos? The answer appears to be: the Budayeen and Marid Audran. The latter is an unremarkable man for hire who lives in the former, the grittiest red light district in an unidentified North African city. (Effinger never names it, but I guess it would have to be Tripoli, if it is anywhere that currently exists.) The author here is counting on the fact that cyberpunk is basically detective noir with technology; the key is in certain aspects of the characters and settings, not the hacking. This is definitely a risk. To many, cyberpunk means glittering cities, often in Japan, people dressed in black clothes and mirrored sunglasses, and computerized hijinks on some advanced form of the Internet.
Gravity provides some tech, but relies instead on familiar noir archetypes: the shabby but honorable detective, prostitutes with hearts of varying degrees of gold, mobsters, corrupt cops, and the like. One set does not preclude the other, of course, but Effinger is gambling that undercutting the reader’s genre expectations will not damage the story. Take out the neural plug-ins, wild surgical techniques and designer drugs, replace Ramadan with the 4th of July, and we have a story that could be a new Raymond Chandler novel. (Of course, one could say the same of other cyberpunk, after stripping out computers, AI, and neon.) Even more impressive, this was published in 1988, pushing the boundaries early on in ways that haven’t been equaled. Does it work?
Anyone who knows their SF history might remember that Gravity was a Hugo nominee in 1988, a particularly strong year for the award. That implies that it worked back in the day, but near-future writing often ages badly. Effinger, though, should be proud to know that Gravity was good then, and is good now. Part of this is luck: he has not overestimated the rate of technological change, and even gets a couple of things right, like cell phones. A major part of this is by design, however. His story and setting require little high tech; this is a slum, after all. The mystery is based on standard mystery motifs of power and politics, both are independent of time and location. Even culturally, things don’t feel too far off, a rarity for Cold War era near-futures. There are references to a collapsed Soviet Empire, but nothing obtrusive. In some ways, the Budayeen feels even more real now, as the Arab world takes center stage in American foreign policy.
Effinger moves slowly into the story. Things start with a bang, then immediately pull back. The murders continue at a steady pace, but Marid isn’t really on the case until halfway through the book. Instead, we watch things develop the way a Budayeen denizen would. Bad things happen, unrelated bad things happen, good things happen, holidays come, and life follows a normal rhythm. Only as the tension ratchets up for the characters does the mystery get fully underway; by this point the reader has become a part of the Budayeen. It’s probably just as well that the atmosphere is so compelling. Much like some Chandler novels, the actual mystery is subject to some holes, bits of convenience, and unexplained miscellanea, but it serves its purpose. It is only fair to say that while I will remember the city and the characters, details of the plot will probably fade from recollection.
I have only one lingering fear from reading Gravity. Because I’m pretty much ignorant of Arab culture, everything in the book seemed authentic and exotic. I wonder how much of that is superficial and if it would all be greeted by exasperation by a real live Arab. Some SF circles are starting to talk more about cultural presentation, who should be allowed to write about what culture, what we owe to minorities, etc., so this was in the back of my mind as I read the novel. Still, if nothing else, the book is a bold attempt at pushing the boundaries of cyberpunk. Whatever its faults, it has my respect for steaming full speed ahead to uncharted waters. Gravity is a must read for the cyberpunk connoisseur.
Rating: Egypt-Algeria matches. For whatever reason, the two teams hate each other. When they meet with something on the line, hide the women and children.