Saturday, 5 January 2013

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

This is the best drug-fuelled Arabic cyperpunk noir I've read in some time.  It's set a couple of centuries down the line and the Western world has effectively collapsed, leaving the Islamic world in ascendence.  Our hero is a lowlife fixer and drug addict called Marid who lives, works and parties in the seedy Budayeen quarter of an unnamed city somewhere on the Levant with his transexual prostitute girlfriend.  He is, of course, a knight in tarnished armour.  A shop-soiled Suleyman.

There's no space travel and machine intelligence going on here, but there is a lot of nice cyberpunk tropes.  Most people can download software into their brains - either "daddies" which give you certain skills while they're plugged in, or "moddies" which make you think you're someone else - historical figures, movie characters, porn stars. Marid doesn't hold with any of that, preferring to keep his mind clear with a mixture of uppers, downers, hallucinogens and booze.

The plot concerns a missing girl, a crimeboss with a offer which can't be refused and a murderer who's taken on the personality of James Bond, as well as some even less salubrious killers.  It's nicely complicated and has a really great ending - setting it up well for some follow ups.  A Fire in the Sun is next up, so I'll keep an eye out.

What's very interesting is its portrayal of the Islamic world.  This was written in 1987 when fundamentalism and Islamism wasn't really the stereotype.  For the Western reader in 2013, these Muslims are way too much into their booze, drugs and trannies.  Strange how the perception of an entire culture changes in just a few years.  I thought the religious and cultural aspects were handled especially well though, from the elaborate etiquette, to Marid's temporary rediscovery of his faith.  It's always a big part of the book, but it never feels like a gimmick.

The title by the way is a lyric from Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."   At no point does gravity actually fail.  It's not that kind of sci-fi.

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