Cyberpunk Book Review: When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

In my effort read all the indie cyberpunk books I could get my hands on this year, my foray into the classics has been a bit stilted. I’ve managed to read some proto-cyberpunk by Philip K. Dick and Larry Niven, as well as Neuromancer by William Gibson, and a few short stories, but that’s about it.

When I first looked into When Gravity Fails it really seemed to check all my happy boxes: cyberpunk, noir style, murder mystery, exotic locations… but it took me a long time to actually pick it up and read it.

Now I wish I had ordered the next to book in the series because I want to keep reading them ASAP!

This book is incredible. I loved it. I don’t know why more people don’t talk about it!

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

The Blurb

In a decadent world of cheap pleasures and easy death, Marid Audrian has kept his independence the hardway. 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.

My Review

This book, to me, is stylistic perfection.

It is the marriage between science fiction and hard-boiled noir novels that I have always dreamed of creating some day. When I first starting writing Bubbles in Space, in the back of my mind I was trying to make something like this book. I didn’t know it existed yet, but this is what I wanted.

Bubbles in Space ended up more like a parody of this world, and it’s themes completely diverged from that of societal corruption to one of personal growth. But that’s besides the point. Stories do what they want…

And in the end it’s a good thing, because When Gravity Fails is the book I was envisioning anyway, and I wouldn’t want to have to compete with it.

Effinger’s world is rich and immersive. The setting of a high-tech Arab city was an interesting diversion from the usual focus on Asian or American city settings, and one which kept me interested. I loved the juxtaposition between Muslim traditions and spirituality and the decadence of the Budayeen.

Marid Audrian is wry and funny, with the perfect balance of noir cynicism and self-effacing humour. The crimes are brutal. The technology is absolutely stunning, despite its simplistic treatment, even reading it from a modern perspective. It holds together in a cohesive, believable way.

I really appreciate Effinger’s exploration of gender and sexuality, too. It was never central to the plot, but this is a future that really allows for a kind of fluidity of gender and sexuality that we don’t see often enough in science fiction.

My only complaint is that it relies heavily on binary expressions, and people seem locked into gendered roles in this society. The world is still on in which females (biological or otherwise) are viewed as inferior to males. (In fact, I think every significant female character in the book was once male, which makes me wonder a bit about what Effinger thought of those of us born with XX chromosomes, but that’s a thought for another time)

In many ways, the classic hard-boiled noir tropes are still in place. The femme-fatale had a sex-change operation, but once she became a woman, she never strayed from the usual female character tropes.

Still, it’s a starting point (and the book came out in 1987, so we have to give Effinger some credit here) that hasn’t been pushed past hard enough.

As a crime and mystery novel, it was fantastic. Very reminiscent of the the classics like Raymond Chandler, but with a few additional sci-fi plot twists to keep it feeling fresh and interesting. The style is definitely closer to the classic detective novels rather than newer mysteries. You aren’t really meant to solve the mystery alongside the main character, and in a sense the mystery itself is an aside to the story of Marid’s transformation. You won’t find any heroes here and, I believe, that’s the point.

In many ways, this is literary fiction masquerading as genre fiction, which is maybe why the critical reception has been a bit polarized. Still, it won a Hugo, and I think it deserved to.

I am excited to read the other two books in this series next year!


Opinions on When Gravity Fails seem to be hot or cold. Have you read it? Did you love it or hate it? What was your favourite or least favourite aspect of the story and characters?

2 thoughts on “Cyberpunk Book Review: When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

  1. George Alec Effinger is one of my all-time favourites. I think I have read nearly every novel or short piece he ever published, and own many even in a couple of different publication formats for the novels. He crafted a realism that was astonishing! It was as if I was transported as a shadow-self into the real world, it was an exquisite experience! I was so excited every time I found something new. I tried once to send a fan letter only to find he had so tragically passed away years before. How could I not know this?! I cried. I found out that same month that James Oliver Rigney had died, broke my heart, it was a month full of tears. But, so much exuberance and enthusiasm, in the end, totally love the writings of George Alec Effinger!

    1. I can’t believe I waited this long to read his stuff! I’m excited to read the rest of the series. I actually know a couple of authors who knew him personally (I am in a writing group with Bruce Bethke!) and it sounds like he was an absolutely wonderful person. I’m sorry he never got to read your fan letter ❤️

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