When Gravity Fails
June 9, 2009 12:24 AM   Subscribe

Editor Marty Halpern looks back at the career of George Alec Effinger (part 1, part 2, part 3), a prolific author best known for his work set in the Budayeen, a walled city in a future Islamic state, teeming with gangsters, hustlers and transsexual prostitutes, many of them habitual users of plug in personality modules. The noirish tone and exotic technology of the Marîd Audran books (When Gravity Fails, A Fire In The Sun, The Exile Kiss) made Effinger one of the leading lights in the cyberpunk movie, and spawned a videogame - a rare attempt at a graphical adventure from Infocom - and an RPG setting. Sadly Effinger faded from prominence after that, and he suffered from a number of health and financial setbacks before passing away in 2002. His work has had somewhat of a resurgence in popularity of late, with the Marîd Audran books coming back into print in 2007, a long with a collection containing The Wolves of Memory, Effinger's personal favourite amongst his novels.
posted by Artw (32 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I ♥ the Marid Audran books.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:09 AM on June 9, 2009


Incidentally, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy has mines the noir/cyberpunk/Muslim setting vein so if you're into Effinger you might dig it.
posted by juv3nal at 1:52 AM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Of all of the various cyberpunk (thank you, Mr. Broad, for removing any sad dignity remaining in that word) settings, the Budayeen always seemed the most plausible and alive of them. The others seemed to teeter on a molecule-thin knife edge, unable to survive any serious change, but the Budayeen had that characteristic organic resilience which says, "Humans will adapt to anything and make a strange muddle of it no matter what."

I've run across the odd short story packed into one anthology or another, but I'll have to buck up and just get the collection.
posted by adipocere at 3:11 AM on June 9, 2009

I really loved Effinger's writing. He had great range, I enjoyed the absurdist humourous novels like the "Nick of Time" series as well. Wonderful to see some his work coming back into print.
posted by gds at 3:51 AM on June 9, 2009

Great post: I remember Effinger's books fondly and now I'm going to have to bring them on vacation with me next week.

I always did wonder what had happened to him, since he was so clearly talented. The little reflection on fame in the "faded from prominence" link is a good reminder that even great talent still requires good fortune if it's to be cultivated and grow into something lasting: "gross statistical anomalies" indeed.

I didn't know that he died in 2002, so I'll mourn him now.

Thanks for the stories, Mr. Effinger.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:22 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember reading one of the Audran books and being very impressed with a small detail of futurism: one morning Audran wakes to hear his phone ringing and has to frantically dig through last night's clothes on the floor to find which pocket the phone is in and answer before the caller hangs up. "Cool and well-observed," I thought. I was much less impressed ten years later when I was doing this very thing myself.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:50 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am also a fan of the Marid Audran novels, and was also an avid Cyberpunk 2020 player in my youth. I still have the RPG supplement for When Gravity Fails, which was mostly written by staff members at R. Talsorian Games in loose collaboration with Effinger -- thus, the supplement tends to have its awkward moments of shoehorning the Budayeen into a game setting that was generally built around Blade Runner, Max Headroom and Gibson's Sprawl trilogy. However, the opening chapters, which deal with the overall setting and expands on the greater world of the novels was great stuff with some nicely prescient predictions 1, some near misses2 and a few of the usual 80's scifi/cyberpunk fallacies3

1 prevalence of warfare via RPV drones, geopolitical havoc ensues as sea levels rise, etc.
2 China doesn't modernize until 2099. The Soviet Union doesn't collapse until well into the 22nd century.
3 in the 23rd century, we are still using laptops with keyboards to access a virtual reality network where major corporate and governmental entities are represented as glowing data fortresses in an endless sea of vector grids protecting stockpiles of data and RAM
posted by bl1nk at 5:53 AM on June 9, 2009

The Budayeen books are richly imagined stuff. Sad that things did not go well in his personal life. I hope we live in one of the few universes where his books were not optioned for large sums and made into wildly successful, artistically satisfying movies.
posted by fleetmouse at 5:59 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's worth pointing out that Effinger lived in New Orleans for a good while; the Budayeen has more than a few similarities to the French Quarter. Hanging out in the romantically-sleazy part of town for years gave his fictional setting a lot more bite than the third-hand decadence found in most other cyberpunk stuff.

I never met him myself despite growing up in NO but his books were wonderful. Hearing he died so early, with only a handful of beautiful stories told, was a shock.
posted by egypturnash at 6:01 AM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wow. The fact that When Gravity Fails lost the Hugo to The Uplift War at the conference held in Effinger's home town is a sad bit of trivia. (Not hating on the Brin, but it's just not as good a book; fans were in my opinion probably still voting for their memory of Startide Rising.)
posted by aught at 6:25 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I didn't know that he died in 2002

I didn't even know he was sick.

the Budayeen has more than a few similarities to the French Quarter.

Absolutely. I read Effinger--well, When Gravity Fails; I've never read the others, yet--when I was in New Orleans. Wandering around the Quarter late at night with a head full of whatever could make you a believer in the Budayeen very quickly.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:53 AM on June 9, 2009

Sometimes I think Metafilter is a Secret SF Publishing Experiment to get me to fill my shelves with ever more tasty futurismic fiction.

There's another paycheck gone on books.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:58 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Very good post, thank you.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:16 AM on June 9, 2009

I came across Effinger about in the 90's. Having lived in the muslim world, the stories were especially evocative to me. So much so that I spontaneously named the stray cats I adopted from the back yard in 2000 Chiri and Marid.

Chiri died a few years ago. Marid is still here and healthy...

(Marid Audran's first name means "illness" and was given to him as a protection against same)
posted by djrock3k at 7:43 AM on June 9, 2009

man, i loved those books. The titles are all Bob Dylan lyrics, too.
posted by dubold at 8:26 AM on June 9, 2009

Another great post, Art!
posted by Mister_A at 8:35 AM on June 9, 2009

Circuit's Edge is a brilliant rpg. If you can get your hands on it, and you liked the books, it's worth playing.
posted by hpliferaft at 9:38 AM on June 9, 2009

His first novel, What Entropy Means To Me, is a favorite of mine. It's a tasty bit of SF postmodernism with a slight John Barth feel to it.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:18 AM on June 9, 2009

I remember reading this stuff in the military (one of the books that got passed around) and trying to remember what the hell it was much later. Trying to explain an Islamic themed cyberpunk book (not knowing the authors name or the title, etc.) to a bookstore clerk and just getting a stare of incomprehensibility.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:23 AM on June 9, 2009

I am also a fan of the Marid Audran novels, and was also an avid Cyberpunk 2020 player in my youth.

Ah, Friday Night Firefight, 20 seconds of gunplay compressed into 3 hours of dice rolling and stats, complete with multiple levels of deadness that your player can slowly sink into...

I think the first time I heard of When Gravity Fails was reading the list of suggested Cyberpunk works that came in the main 2020 book (I never actually saw the RPG supplement). At the time I picked up the Gibson books and scoured the school library for anything else that minght be on the list, and came up with Angel Stations by Walter Jon Williams. not exactly Cyberpunk, but a cracking read.

It doesn't seem to be in print at the moment - In fact i suspect that Walter jon Williams might have had a similar dip out of the limelight to Effinger, as it looks like all of his books, including Hardwired (the most famously cyberpunk one) were out of print until recently. Still, his blog is called Angel Station, so he must still be fond of it.

I guess the lesson is that it sucks to be an Old-School Cyberpunk not named Gibson or Sterling. Maybe I should dig out my copy of Mirrorshades and see who else is still around out of that lot.
posted by Artw at 10:36 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Circuit's Edge is a brilliant rpg. If you can get your hands on it, and you liked the books, it's worth playing.

Furthering the Infocom link, it seems he wrote a Zork tie-in. Sounds like it kind of sucks though.
posted by Artw at 10:39 AM on June 9, 2009

Sounds like it kind of sucks though.

Sadly, yes.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:32 AM on June 9, 2009

I remember When Gravity Fails. I thought that the world the author created was really neat, especially given that every other contemporary author was genuflecting to China and Japan. The tech that the book was centered around struck me as a bit simplistic, as a MacGuffin, but the depth of the world that surrounded it made for a much more interesting read than the authors who were desperately trying to recreate Gibson's success. It left enough of an impression that I still catch myself thinking about it every now and then, which is more than I can say for 99% of the Cyberpunk genre.

I'll have to track down the rest of the books now, to see how well they've weathered.
posted by lekvar at 12:54 PM on June 9, 2009

Maybe I should dig out my copy of Mirrorshades and see who else is still around out of that lot.

Quite a few... by the look of it...

Gibson, Sterling obviously... Rucker, Bear, Kelly, Shiner, Di Filippo are still active.

Maddox and Laidlaw seem to have fallen by the wayside. And I feel sorry for Pat Cadigan (Jason X: The Experiment (2005)...)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:24 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Of course, for actual 'cyberpunk' you'll have to look hard... it seemed to mutate into Post-Cyberpunk rather quickly... (And then New Space Opera came in... but that's another story)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:27 PM on June 9, 2009

TBH There's a lot in Mirrorshades that isn't very cyberpunky to begin with, and a bunch of authors I wouldn't think of being cyberpunk at all - in places it leans towards the Slipstream or straight up fantasy.
posted by Artw at 2:37 PM on June 9, 2009

If you haven't read "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything," do so now. It is the funniest alien invasion story ever written. Nominated for a short story Hugo, it lost to David Brin's "The Crystal Spheres."
posted by Marky at 6:12 PM on June 9, 2009

Having read that story I suspect those aliens are all MeFites.
posted by Artw at 11:52 PM on June 9, 2009

Is The Crystal Spheres the dolphin one? because it's nice and all but not nearly as funny opr charming as the Effinger story. And the endings kind of meh.
posted by Artw at 11:54 PM on June 9, 2009

So let me get this straight, Effinger lost two Hugos and a Locus to Brin? That is so fucked up.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:45 AM on June 10, 2009

I guess he had the misfortune to be operating at the height of some kind of Brin fever. There might be some old guard traditionalism involved too: Crystal Spheres is my only exposure to uplift stuff, and it's alright, but really rather old school space opera stuff compared wth Effinger.
posted by Artw at 7:02 AM on June 13, 2009

Juv3nal, thanks for the Arabesk recommendation. I'm into the third book of the trilogy now, and it's been a good read.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:26 PM on June 19, 2009

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