Sunday, March 06, 2011

Re-reading the classics–When Gravity Fails

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done one of these.  There are a couple of reasons for that: a) As some at Ace’s will attest, I have trouble understanding words of more than two syllables or with more than one vowel.  That slows me up considerably.  b) It takes a while to wade thru the cat carcasses, empty whiskey bottles, and stacks of newspapers to actually locate a book to read, and c) Nobody actually reads these so I don’t really feel a rush to get one out on any set schedule.  (I have been informed I will have a new reader today.  If that’s true I may start cranking these out more frequently, If not – well the hostage gets it.)

Today’s work is When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger.

Written in 1986 at the height of the “Oh My God, the Japanese are buying up all the real estate scare”, “When Gravity Fails” is a dystopian cyberpunk novel with a slight twist.  Instead of Japan dominating everyone with their “Ohhh, we’re super scary smart” technology, the middle-east (in particular the Muslim middle-east) has engineered the downfall of the superpowers and come out on top.  The rest of the world has fragmented but it is hinted strongly that a caliphate has held the muslim world together.  Even for a genre that delights in beings as depressing as possible without being written by Sylvia Plath this strikes a lot of people (and by that I mean me) as a particularly depressing outcome.  It also seems slightly prescient given the state of the world today.

Against this backdrop we meet Marid Audran, a con-man/drifter who lives in the Budayeen, which seems to be the Las Vegas of the Muslim world.  Audran as the narrator presents a view of himself as tough and independent.  He is slightly arrogant and looks down on his friends who have had cybernetic enhancements, (they had to be there it’s a cyberpunk novel) as using artificial crutches to escape reality.  In reality he is a borderline addict / alcoholic who is just as dependent on his friends and his coping mechanisms as they are.  Effinger does throw in another little twist here; in most cyberpunk novels the enhancements are used to make people into some version of a supersoldier, faster reflexes, hardwired combat skills etc.  Effinger was obviously an astute observer of humanity, because like the internet in his universe implants are for porn.  Seriously that’s all these people do -  Jack in a porn module and hook up with some random person.  Good work if you can get it I guess, but it makes me think of that experiment with the mice where they wired the pleasure centers and it died after a couple weeks because all it did was hit the orgasm button.  Seems to me this is not the way to maintain a vast Muslim empire.  In addition Effinger must have been a kinky little SOB because no one uses the equipment they were born with.  90% of the girls are either post op transsexuals or shemales.  Of the rest one is a devout muslim, three are assassins with basketball sized breast implants, one is a cannibal and one is 90 years old and horny.  I don’t want to live in the neighborhood where he got his inspiration.

The story itself is boilerplate noir.  Reluctant hero has to solve series of brutal killings.  After seemingly solving the case it turns out that the crimes were actually masterminded by another, who has now kidnapped a friend / lover,  and the hero has to sacrifice a part of himself in order to save them.  The sacrifice is of course unappreciated and the hero is left in quiet contemplation to decide whether it was worth it.

So what’s the verdict?  This is actually a very readable book and I think one of the classics of the cyberpunk genre.  It takes the paradigms laid out by Sterling and Gibson and subverts them, but at the same time remains true to the original concepts.  I recommend it, the two sequels not so much.

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