When Gravity Fails

George Alec Effinger
When Gravity Fails Cover

Strong writing, unique setting, but a few criticisms


Cyberpunk (without the computers) set in an Arab/Islamic dominated world: now that’s a unique and interesting concept, and it’s one that Effinger carries out well.  Told in the first person from Audran’s view, this book is rich in character development as well as in cultural/technological worldbuilding, but where it falls short is in the mystery and detective story.

High Tech, Low Life: What When Gravity Fails Does Well

The worldbuilding in this book is one of its strongest aspects.  Most cyberpunk stories are set in the proximity of the world’s technological centers: Asia (usually Japan) or the United States.  In Effinger’s world, East and West fizzled out in the Cold War and balkanized themselves, splintering into a menagerie of different nation-states and thereby losing their status as world leaders.  The Arab-Islamic world, on the other hand, was far more stable in terms of culture and government, which is why the Middle East came out ahead of East and West.  It’s an interesting concept, and we see it manifest in several characters throughout the book who are refugees or expatriates from the has-been superpowers.

This book also does a good job of representing Arab and Islamic customs for a western audience.  Now, I have some book knowledge of Arab and Islamic custom, and I took an entry-level Arabic course some years ago, but I’m definitely an outsider.  Still, from what I can tell When Gravity Fails does a great job of presenting Arab and Islamic culture and customs.  From customs of greeting, to treating guests, and to personal religious observances, Effinger explains and utilizes the Arabic language and Arab/Islamic customs in ways relevant to the plot and to character development. For example, Audran frequently observes how compliments or verbal jibes are subtly worked into the stiff formality of small talk between guest and host.  Turns of phrase or common sayings in Arabic are worked into the dialogue and into Audran’s inner monologue frequently, and Effinger makes sure his readers have a grasp on what they are about so that when they come up again later the reader feels more plugged in to Audran’s world.  Effinger’s use of the Arabic language and Arab and Islamic culture is certainly not just window-dressing in this book as it resonates with the plot and character development.

Religion is treated pretty well in this book as well, which is a change from a great deal of science fiction.  Audran begins as a heavily-lapsed and unobservant Muslim.  As things progress, however, he becomes more and more drawn to his erstwhile faith for several reasons: the fear for his life, the comfort it brings him, the shame he feels when confronting someone whose faith or observance is stronger than his, etc.  The Islamic faith is for Audran not just about personal salvation but about being a part of his community as well.  In an almost inverted pattern from most science fiction stories, the protagonist becomes more religious.  Effinger keeps things realistic, however, as everything isn’t pie-in-the-sky perfect when it comes to faith.  Audran knows a lot of people who answer the call to prayer but are back to sinning and backstabbing as soon as they return.  In the end, while Effinger does seem to celebrate the religion in the form of Audran’s growing religious awareness, he also keeps the darker side of human nature firmly in mind.

The central bit of world-building that solidifies this book’s place on the science fiction shelf is the cyberpunk influence.  Cyberpunk has been concisely described as showing “high tech and low life,” meaning the use of high technology as it has filtered down to the dregs of society (hackers, criminals, and other nefarious individuals).  First, I’m going to discuss the high-tech.  Effinger’s cyberpunk elements include body modifications, particularly brain modifications that allow a person to swap software modules in and out of one’s head.  There are two kinds. “Daddies” act as add-ons or supplements to one’s knowledge or abilities.  Want to be able to speak German?  Pop in a German daddy and take it out when you’re done.  Is it tax season?  Pop in an accountancy daddy.  These abilities disappear as soon as the module is removed.  More extreme are the “Moddies,” which enable a complete personality shift according to the moddy inserted.  Want to be like James Bond?  Insert the James Bond moddy.  Want to have a tougher personality but still be you?  There’s a moddy for that too!  You can acquire moddies of fictional characters, historical figures, and even living people who have had their brains mapped.  The moddy most discussed in the book is one for a pornstar or actress (was never sure which) named Honey Pilar: have your lover pop in that moddy and she (or he) will seamlessly take on Honey Pilar’s sensuous personality.

The moddies and daddies are used to great thematic effect in the book.   Prostitutes use moddies to meet the desires of their clients.  Criminals and thugs use daddies to gain easy expertise or to enhance their physical attributes by directly manipulating their brains.   Audran considers himself above people who have had their brains wired.  They are only as strong and competent as the add-ons they can plug into their head, but as a competent and natural human Audran is confident that he is better (morally if not physically and mentally).  Indeed, I often pondered the risk vs. reward of moddies and daddies while reading this book.  On the one hand, how useful are you if all you can do is plug a moddy or daddy in as opposed to achieving knowledge or competency for yourself?  On the other hand, however, I couldn’t deny the advantage at being able to instantly gain a new talent or to change one’s mental and physical capabilities by simply slapping in a new moddy or daddy.  That I am on the fence about this shows how well Effinger crafted both sides of this debate.  Indeed, I realized just how great and subtle of a job Effinger did here when when Audran was in dread of having his brain wired for moddies and daddies and pondered whether or not he would still be himself after.  It chilled me as well.

Brain modification isn’t the only kind of technology floating around in the Budayeen.  In addition to that and the prodigious amount of advanced narcotics floating around, physical modifications are also abundant.  This most often appears in the form of gender reassignment.  There are a great deal of male-to-female conversions working in the sex industry in the Budayeen.  These conversions can be extremely thorough, as in the case of Audran’s girlfriend, Yasmin, who was born a man but after extensive procedures has become a woman physically and mentally.  This is a pretty radical element in the book that causes us to question just how bothered we would be by the common nature of such practice and/or how much of a difference would it make in our everyday relations.  In Yasmin’s case, she has undergone an almost-seamless conversion and modified nearly her entire body from top to bottom, inside and out.  Yasmin is referred to as a woman, acts like a woman, is treated like a woman, and while that awareness of her difference is always there, the difference itself rarely manifests itself and becomes somewhat invisible as time passes.    I’ll admit that their relationship was challenging for me due to her status as a transgender female, but after a while they just seemed like another couple, albeit a rowdy one: they have frequent blow outs and then get back together.  This was a challenging and intriguing aspect of the book, but aside from Audran’s relationship with Yasmin it didn’t quite work as I think Effinger wanted it to work (more on that in the next section).

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the world building and the tech aspects of the book because this is the stuff that comes out through our first-person viewpoint with Audran.  His thoughts and wry criticism of the world around him made the Budayeen an engaging place to visit.   I got the very believable feeling that Audran was a member of a real society as the implications of the technology and the culture were teased out and explored in a variety of ways relevant to the plot of the book.  Indeed, everything I’ve talked about above becomes integral to Audran’s character arc, which in the end I found to be very thoughtful.   At the beginning of the book he considers himself to be “in the world but not of it,” owned by no one and not under anyone or anything’s control.  The course of the book challenges those assumptions and by the end we realize just how dependent he was on the people around him.   It was not only believable but engrossing in many parts as Effinger’s writing style simultaneously made Audran seem like an arrogant ass and a guy you can sympathize with if not like.  The writing overall was very well done and held the elements together, even though I had significant criticisms of the narrative structure.

When Structure Fails: Where When Gravity Fails Could Have Been Better

I have three prominent criticisms of this book: two have to do with the narrative structure, and one has to do with world building and plot devices.  The two structural criticisms have to do with the detective story hinted at in the blurb above, which you may have noticed, dear reader, did not make it into my praise.  That is because this element of the book didn’t quite hold my interest as it should have.

First, the book took its sweet time to get to the central plot as described in the blurb excerpted above.  You may note that I did not put the detective story hinted at in the blurb in the above section of praise.  Audran doesn’t become directly involved in hunting down the killer in the Budayeen until almost halfway through the book.  Pieces of the puzzle do come across his path, of course.  That is part of the hardboiled detective formula, but a typical detective story also puts the protagonist squarely in the middle of the mystery pretty early on. Audran isn’t recruited into Friedlander Bey’s service until halfway in, and before that he is almost tangentially involved in the mystery.  A good deal of that first chunk of the book is important world building and character development that I certainly wouldn’t do away with, but since it precedes Audran’s direct and open involvement in hunting the killer, that first chunk seems to lack an organizing focus.   The interesting world and good writing kept me reading, but the plot could have been much tighter.  It would have had greater momentum, and would have stuck closer to that typical detective story mold if it brought Audran officially into the hunt for the killer earlier and wove all of his character development into that journey.

Second, I had issue with how passive Audran’s role as detective seemed to be, and thereby I took issue with how this book interpreted agency in the hardboiled detective story in general.  In philosophy, literary studies, and in my area of study (rhetoric and composition), agency refers to an individual’s (or a character’s) ability to make choices and to turn those choices into actions that affect his or her world.  In the traditional hardboiled detective story, the detective’s agency is often less than that of many of the characters around him/her: they are often broke or on the verge of bankruptcy, they realize that they are pawns in a a game involving more powerful players, they often get beaten up, the solution to the mystery doesn’t provide satisfaction they hoped for, they have crisis after crisis piled upon them, and they often take the punishment as well as the reward in the end.  In short, the hardboiled detective gets the shit end of the stick all around, and it’s a device that illustrates just how that cold, cruel world can undermine our expectations of the hero winning the day or of a happy ending.  Still, these detective characters have rich interior lives–which Audran does–and have occasion to show how clever, resourceful, and brave they can be–which Audran doesn’t.  Well, arguably he does, but he never seems to drive his own investigation.  Things happen to him, and he literally stumbles across all of the key clues.   Sure, he suffered for his discoveries and revelations, but he didn’t have to work hard for them.  At one point a particular character lays out about 90% of the conspiracy to Audran in a horribly-thorough explanation that shoots most of the mystery in the foot.  Why couldn’t Audran have worked for this knowledge himself?  Did Effinger conclude that the protagonist he had carefully crafted would never be able to unravel this mystery and decided to give Audran a gimme?  There was never a point that I thought Effinger created an instance for Audran to be particularly clever or innovative or anything like that.  I was, overall, disappointed with how the mystery and the detective story unfolded.  Not only was it delayed, but it often felt like a farce.  In this regard, Audran had very little agency as things simply happened to him and he rarely seemed to be driving the investigation.

My third primary criticism is the use of transsexual characters.  The sheer number of them became ridiculous.  They could have been used as a plot device that undermines our expectations of gender roles as it makes us wonder/question who is really a man, who is really a woman, and what that distinction means in the end.  I think Effinger meant it as such.  Audran’s tumultuous relationship with Yasmin comes the closest to being challenging and interesting, but there are so many male-to-female transsexuals in the book overall that the mystery (and the anxiety) of who is what and why it matters falls apart.  Its just safer to assume that every female is a male conversion.  After finishing the book, I could count on one hand the number of female characters I remembered who were born females.  Keep in mind this is a book that tries to flesh out the wide range of low-lifes, businessmen (and women), and hustlers that run the Budayeen, so it has a good-sized cast of characters.  It felt ridiculous, as opposed to the thought-challenging plot element that I think Effinger meant it to be.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to carry on in this book or in this series.  The mix of Arabic and Islamic culture with cyperpunk influences was novel and well done, but the mystery and resulting detective story was a let down.  At the end of the book, however, I found myself drawn in to Audran’s struggles in some surprising ways that made me look more kindly on the book as a whole.  As it stands, I plan to give the next book in the series, A Fire in the Sun, a chance.  I recommend this book for its unique setting, good use of cyberpunk influences, and rich writing.