When Gravity Fails
By George Alec Effinger

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Rating: Unique Setting
3 Stars

First Published: 1987
US Jacket Illustration:  Michael Hinge
Pages: 290

Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre:  Cyberpunk, Science Fiction, Noir Crime



When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger is known as one of the early “classic” cyberpunk novels although it is not nearly as well known as the novels of William Gibson.  It has all the trappings of a hard boiled crime novel but what really makes this novel unique is the setting; a futuristic red light district called the Budayeen located in an unnamed large city in the Middle East.  With this novel, Effinger does an excellent job of creating an exotic world with lots of atmosphere that is shaken by a series of brutal slayings.

When Gravity Fails emphasizes a noir style murder mystery and Middle Eastern culture.  The cyberpunk aspect is that most people have been fitted with the ability to plug in add-on packages directly into their brains to give them instant knowledge or complete personality changes.  In addition, recreational drugs have become ubiquitous. 

The anti-hero of the novel is Marid Audran, a native product of the Budayeen, son of a prostitute.  As such, he is totally in his comfort zone among the tough bars, strip joints, and organized crime.  He’s managed to be an independent operator, living by his wits.  Unlike most of the other inhabitants, he hasn’t had surgery to enable plugging in add-ons to his brain.   However, when he finds that a series of brutal murders is targeting his acquaintances and the local crime boss wants his help, he finds that he can’t refuse.  Not only does the crime boss want Marid’s help, he also wants to help upgrade Marid to him a better chance against a psychopath that seems to be way beyond the abilities of the police.

The setting of this novel is its major strength.  There is an interesting mixture of drugs, sex, crime, and religion.  The most powerful man in the Budayeen is the organized crime boss who also happens to be a strict practicing Muslim.  Marid is not a practicing Muslim but was raised with the religion which helps him get along with the many religious inhabitants.    In contrast to the strict religious rituals are nightclubs teaming with drugs, alchohol, and prostitutes.  Curiously, many of the prostitutes started as males and became females through sex changes.

Marid is an engaging anti-hero although he is certainly not the most likeable hero.  Most of the other characters are not nearly as well developed.  In particular, there is a misogynist slant as almost all the women seem to only exist for the pleasure of men.  What is even more surprising is that most of the women in this novel are transsexuals which makes one wonder where all the real women are although I guess it makes sense that respectable women would stay far from the red light district.

While the atmosphere of this novel is fascinating, the crime mystery does not prove to be as captivating.  The mysteries show a lot of promise during the first half of the novel but as answers are uncovered, they end up seeming a bit disappointing.  However, there is as least one major shock at the end.

For something different in the cyberpunk genre, When Gravity Fails offers a mélange of crime and science fiction in an exotic Middle Eastern setting.