Orb Books, 1987, 288 pages
In a decadent world of cheap pleasures and easy death, Marid Audrian has kept his independence the hard way. Still, like everything else in the Budayeen, he's available for a price.
For a new kind of killer roams the streets of the Arab ghetto, a madman whose bootlegged personality cartridges range from a sinister James Bond to a sadistic disemboweler named Khan. And Marid Audrian has been made an offer he can't refuse. The 200-year-old godfather of the Budayeen's underworld has enlisted Marid as his instrument of vengeance. But first Marid must undergo the most sophisticated of surgical implants before he dares to confront a killer who carries the power of every psychopath since the beginning of time.
Wry, savage, and unignorable, When Gravity Fails was hailed as a classic by Effinger's fellow SF writers on its original publication in 1987, and the sequence of Marid Audrian novels it begins were the culmination of his career.
There really is a noir-ish sameness to most cyberpunk novels. If you've read Neuromancer or Altered Carbon, you've read When Gravity Fails. Just replace future-Tokyo or future-San Francisco with future-Damascus. (Actually, the city is never actually named: it could just as easily be Beirut or Amman or Jerusalem or Cairo.) While this was a good story, I'm thinking it was nominated for a Hugo and Nebula in 1988 because "Whoa, dude! Cyberpunk! In the Middle East! Like, everyone's Muslim!"
Aside from that novelty factor, When Gravity Fails serves up what you expect in a cyberpunk novel: digital personalities, downloaded brain modifications, surgically altered bodies, fractured nation-states in a world with the West in decline and the Middle East ascendant, and lots of crime and grit and whores.
Marid Audrian is a Moroccan son of a prostitute who's your fairly standard noir protagonist: he hangs out in the Budayeen, an Arab ghetto in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, and his friends, lovers, and business associates are all grifters, bartenders, prostitutes, various-shades-of-dirty cops, street hustlers, just trying to get by, preying on rich tourists and their fellow citizens alike.
Marid gets dragged into a convoluted plot involving an assassin on a rampage, who is at first James Bond and then an Arab serial killer. Since Marid begins the story stating his abhorrence of having his brain modified, we know he's going to wind up chipped and jacked to the max. He is the prototypical reluctant hero who ends up working for people he swore he'd never work for, doing things he swore he'd never do. He has a mystery to solve, which involves red herrings and double-crosses and twists and a killer still on the loose after Marid has supposedly solved the case, necessitating one more dose of super-violence.
James Bond vs. Nero Wolfe was kind of cool, though.
Effinger's handling of Middle Eastern culture from a first-person POV did not, I think, exoticize it too much. Marid, while not devout himself, sees Arab culture and Islam as the default, so if he's sometimes critical or even mocking of it, it's no more so than an agnostic American who's not above taking shots at American culture and Christianity.
There are a lot of sex-changed characters in the book, including Marid's girlfriend. I wouldn't say it's particularly sensitive to transgendered people (there are the usual jokes about "You didn't know she used to be a man?"), but they seem to be accepted like everyone else. When Gravity Fails was probably pretty progressive for 1988. The "Whores! Whores! Whores!" aesthetic is de rigueur for cyberpunk. (That said, if you want cyberpunk that's not full of whores whoring and Breasts! With Nipples! Described! try Neal Stephenson or Hannu Rajaniemi.)
Incidentally, the characters never go into space and there is no failure of artificial gravity. I had to look up the book's Wikipedia entry to find out the meaning of the title.
Have you read When Gravity Fails?
Verdict: Like Neuromancer, When Gravity Fails is a book that might have been edgy and mind-blowing in the 80s, but now has nothing you haven't seen rolled out in mass production by Hollywood and dozens of SF imitators. This story about a street operator tracking down a serial killer in an unnamed futuristic Middle Eastern city is an entertaining enough read, but unless either cyberpunk or the Middle Eastern setting holds special appeal for you, it isn't something I'd recommend you go out of your way for.
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