-Review by Paul Ewbank-
(This is the first review I’ve written under restricted conditions; 1000 word limit, one hour to write it, no re-writes. It probably won’t be as good as some of my others, and will doubtless have way more typos unless Liz edits it for me, but this way I can say I’m ‘fostering creative discipline’ rather than ‘pissing away an afternoon writing rubbish nobody reads’. It’s a fine line).
Try to think of a story where the main character is Arabic. Could be a film, book, whatever. Got any? Within this list, try to think of a story in which the protagonist’s ethnicity isn’t a central part of the plot or premise. A story which isn’t about religious conflict or trying to find acceptance in a hostile prejudiced world but is merely a tale about a regular guy/girl who just happens to have brown skin. Worryingly hard, right? One of the few I can come up with is this, George Alec Effinger’s 1987 cyberpunk novel When Gravity Fails. The book is set in an unspecified Middle-Eastern country and features an almost exclusively Muslim cast of characters, but other than that is a normal-albeit very good- cyberpunk novel with all the trappings and tropes you’d expect of the genre. Effinger’s book demonstrates tolerance and understanding of different cultures in the best possible way- by not making a big deal of them.
When Gravity Fails, like a lot of other cyberpunk and dystopian future novels, is set in a universe where the world powers of today have disintegrated: the USA and Russia have fractured into bickering mini-states, traditional nations and borders have collapsed and greedy mega-corporations run the show behind closed doors. The one difference here is that the Muslim world has remained unified and risen to dominance in the world stage. As interesting an idea as that is, it’s left mostly as a backdrop. When Gravity Fails focuses almost entirely on the shady exploits of Marid Audran, drug addicted low life scabbing a living in the Buyadeen- a nefarious Middle Eastern city district rife with casual sex, drugs and murder. The urban Arabic setting fits the cyberpunk aesthetic of warring factions, corrupt dealings and cobbled together technology very well. William Gibson once said that modern Tokyo was the living embodiment of Cyberpunk, but I wonder had he gotten lost in the winding back alleys of Marrakech or Jerusalem might he have thought it more at home there. If you’ve been to these kinds of places it’s easy to imagine them in fifty years time becoming a breeding den for mind expanding drugs and illicit homemade software, prowled by conmen, hookers and leather clad hackers. Heck, it’s probably like that now if you know where to look. All of the above are of course genre staples, and along with corrupt cops, hard boiled anti-heroes and exotic femme fatales, all are accounted for within the pages of Effinger’s novel, but in this exotic new setting they all feel fresh and exciting.
The plot is a typically grimy tale drawn from the underbelly of Noir, slasher horror and sci-fi. A series of gruesome murders start threatening the interests of one of the mob-bosses of the Buyadeen, who enlists Marid to track down the killer, fitting him out with the latest brain-computer interfacing technology to give him the skills and know-how to get the job done. These brain add-on modules are the main technology hook in When Gravity Fails. It’s an idea that’d been around several years even back in 1987, but Effinger takes it in some unexpected directions. Rather than merely being a means of chipping in whole new skillsets I-know-Kung-Fu style as in The Matrix or Neuromancer, here people are able to upload entirely new personalities into their brain. It’s an incredibly potent idea- millions of people dream of being someone else, and in this world they really can be. Giving people this power plays out as badly as you’d expect. Some suitably twisted perversions are presented: chipping in the personality of a famous movie star so that you can experience having sex with them being a fairly common one, but tracking down killers becomes a lot more troublesome when they could be using an entirely constructed personality, thus leaving you with no clues as to motive or context. Indeed the killer Marid Audran attempts to track down kills several people in the style of James Bond- with a Walther PPK to the head. The scenes where Audran himself injects new personalities are well told in a disorientating mix of first and third person to emphasise the blurred perception of who is the real person.
Not that giving Marid a new personality is really that bad an idea, since for the most part he’s a massive tool. He spends most of the book wandering from bar to strip club, popping pills, swigging cocktails and claiming some kind of moral superiority since at least he’s being himself, not someone else. And that’s the biggest problem I have with When Gravity Fails: I’m all for a bit of casual drug enhanced sex and the like (in my books, not in my actual life, you pervs), but for half the book that’s all we get. The actual plot takes far too long to get going, and whilst drug addled wanderings are all well and good, you get the feeling more could be being done with the ideas on offer.
Another thing to be aware of about this book is that it’s pretty grizzly, even by genre standards. Expect high levels of sexual violence and descriptions of some pretty messed up stuff that’ll linger in your mind long after you’re finished reading. With that health warning out of the way I’m happy to recommend When Gravity Fails as a well written and very entertaining book. It’s easy to flick through and never gets bogged down in techno-waffle or philosophical asides like a good chunk of cyberpunk. Some people may find the relentless unpleasantness depressing, but that comes with the territory really. If you’re the kind to enjoy stories about horrible people being horrible to each other in a horrible future dystopia and then all dying horribly, this is another book to add to your list. Recommended whether you’re exploring those all too rare examples of non-white leads in sci-fi or just looking for your next dose of near-future sci- fi nastiness.