There really is a noir-ish sameness to most cyberpunk novels. If you've read Neuromancer
or Altered Carbon
, you've read When Gravity Fails
. Just replace future-Tokyo or future-San Francisco with future-Damascus. (Actually, the city is never actually named: it could just as easily be Beirut or Amman or Jerusalem or Cairo.) While this was a good story, I'm thinking it was nominated for a Hugo and Nebula in 1988 because "Whoa, dude! Cyberpunk! In the Middle East
! Like, everyone's Muslim
Aside from that novelty factor, When Gravity Fails
serves up what you expect in a cyberpunk novel: digital personalities, downloaded brain modifications, surgically altered bodies, fractured nation-states, and lots of crime and grit and whores.
Marid Audrian is a Moroccan son of a prostitute who's your fairly standard noir protagonist: he hangs out in the Budayeen, an Arab ghetto in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, and his friends, lovers, and business associates are all grifters, bartenders, prostitutes, various-shades-of-dirty cops, street hustlers, just trying to get by, preying on rich tourists and their fellow citizens alike.
Marid gets dragged into a convoluted plot involving a serial killer who initially uses a James Bond persona, which was a mildly clever touch. Since he begins the story stating his abhorrence of having his brain modified, we know he's going to wind up chipped and jacked to the max.
The action scenes are fast-paced and well-written and the technology blends smoothly with the Middle Eastern setting. The "mystery" is a bit of a let-down, as I was expecting something more clever and twisted, but it ultimately made sense, and why should the real killer be some shocking Big Reveal instead of just another grimy scumbag?
Effinger's handling of Middle Eastern culture from a first-person POV did not, I think, exoticize it too much. Marid, while not devout himself, sees Arab culture and Islam as the default, so if he's sometimes critical or even mocking of it, it's no more so than an agnostic American who's not above taking shots at American culture and Christianity.
There are a lot of sex-changed characters in the book, including Marid's girlfriend. I wouldn't say it's particularly sensitive to trans people (there are the usual jokes about "You didn't know she used to be a man?"), but they seem to be accepted like everyone else. When Gravity Fails
was probably pretty progressive for 1988. The "Whores! Whores! Whores!" sensibility is pretty de rigueur
for cyberpunk. (That said, if you want cyberpunk that's not full of whores whoring and Breasts! With Nipples! Described! try Neal Stephenson or Hannu Rajaniemi.)
, When Gravity Fails
is a book that might have been edgy and mind-blowing in the 80s, but now has nothing you haven't seen rolled out in mass production by Hollywood and dozens of SF imitators. This story about a street operator tracking down a serial killer in an unnamed futuristic Middle Eastern city is an entertaining enough read, but unless either cyberpunk or the Middle Eastern setting holds special appeal for you, it isn't something I'd recommend you go out of your way for.
I'm giving it 3.5 stars, rounding down because I've just read too many similar books.