When Gravity Fails

Posted by : atcampbell | On : July 17, 2007

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

We have been reading classic works in the group a bit more lately. We realized that we had never read anything by George Alec Effinger, a onetime ArmadilloCon regular and former Guest of Honor. Since several of his books came back into print recently, we decided to read his Hugo-nominated When Gravity Fails. Eleven people gathered for this discussion at A. T.’s house, and two more submitted comments by email. Nine of us had read Effinger before. Ten people at the meeting started the book, and all ten finished. Both the email participants had finished the book.

This book is a cyberpunk detective novel set in the Middle East. Private detective Marid Audran is forced into an uneasy alliance with a police officer to work on a case for Friedlander Bey, a local crimelord. The book is set a couple of hundred years in the future, where people can have modifications  to improve their brain power and memory, give them new personalities, and provide specific knowledge like foreign languages.

We found it easy to get involved with Marid and his world. We felt that the story and technology hold up well, which is rare for a 20-year-old cyberpunk book. Several of us appreciated Marid’s personal struggle about getting brain modifications for himself. One person’s comment about the Middle East setting was “Effinger wrote about Arabs before they were cool.” The prose style is seamless and effortless to read. Marid is a sympathetic character, and his narration style reminded some of us of the work of Raymond Chandler.  We thought the mystery/sf blend worked well.

Those of us who knew the author felt that the atmosphere in the book derived as much from the author’s experiences in the New Orleans French Quarter as from his research about the Middle East. We appreciated his sympathetic treatment of the troubled people and social misfits who populate the strip clubs and bars where most of the action takes place. One person summed it up as “freaks are people too.”

Our disappointments in the book were minor. One person felt that plot was not as well-developed and memorable as the characters and setting. Another was disappointed that the book was not the hard sf novel she expected from the book’s title. It turns out that the title was a quote from a Bob Dylan song.

It was interesting to see how some of this book’s futuristic speculation held up. The ubiquitous use of cellular phones, which were rare or nonexistent at the time of the book’s writing, was spot-on. Some people felt that recent political developments in the Middle East make it clear that the world of this book can no longer exist in our future.

Overall, we had a good time reading and discussing this book. Most of those new to Effinger plan to read more of his work. Afterward, we had a nice dinner at Mongolian Grille.

— A. T. Campbell, III