Friday, August 21, 2015

Audiobook Review: When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

Audible link
Originally published in 1987
Awards: 1987 Nebula nominated, 1988 Hugo nominated, 1988 Locus SF nominated
Challenges: Pick and Mix challenge

When Gravity Fails is at its heart a satisfying who-done-it. I never guessed who the killer was though, in hindsight, there was sufficient evidence for them to be a suspect. I tend to let the story flow rather than spend time trying to beat the protagonist to the correct conclusion, but I think even seasoned mystery readers will be satisfied with the solution.

I was disappointed in one aspect of the mystery investigation. The killer's tricks, while enhanced by "moddies" (more on that in a bit), could have been accomplished with practice and costuming, so I didn't understand why Marid didn't spend more time looking (with his eyeballs) for the killer. After all, he saw the killer early in the book when the killer had on the persona of James Bond. As a private investigator I would expect him to be able to spot someone or at least to try to spot someone when they change disguises. The killer being able to completely change their mannerisms and vocal patterns makes it difficult, but not impossible. Yet Marid never spends any time at this. He acts as if he never saw the killer's face to start with. It bothered me through the whole story and, while I worry that maybe I missed some explanation of why this tactic might not be practical, ultimately I can't dwell on the point, I have to just accept the book for what it is.

I appreciated the setting of the book. The Budayeen is a walled-in red-light-district in the middle east. It is never specifically placed in reference to current national borders, but in a future world where formerly stable Western countries like the US and Russia (this was published before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991) have broken up, even fictional predictions of borders in the middle east would have been meaningless to the reader. Instead, I get the sense that in this world Islam has spread as a religion and the middle east is rising as one of the stable powers in the world. It's hard to know what the rest of the world is really like because the book is tightly focused on the culture and events in the Budayeen, where Islam is the de facto religion but also where many things that would be forbidden elsewhere are tolerated.

I suspect that Islam in the Budayeen is much closer to the realistic practice of any religion than it is to the terrorist-Islam that makes the news in the US, but it's hard to know. Even knowing that I'm better informed about it than many, I have a hard time peeling away the layers of fear, propoganda, and misinformation that surround a core comprised of the facts of Islam. Without many pop-culture examples with which to take that core and build a knowledge of the reality of the practice of Islam, acknowledging the regional variation and factionalism of that reality, I can only relate it to my own religious experience. I know that the core facts of Christianity, the cultural Christian-centrism in the US, the practical realities of Christianity in a modern society, and the politicized Christianity on the news are all different. Even having been inside the Christian community as a youth and being well aware of the realities of most Christianity practice in the US I still find myself having to untangle from fear as I place myself, a bisexual divorced atheist woman, in context.

I know this may seem like overthinking it, but in the absence of pervasive cultural exchange and acceptance every example counts when it comes to combating irrational fear (and defining the borders of rational fear). Consensus on the internet is that Effinger was "reskinning" New Orleans into the Arabian Budayeen, but even if he wasn't saying something about Islam as he knew it, he is saying something about Islam as he perceived it. Every book, comic, movie, news item, essay, memoir, etc. adds to the perception of and conversation about Islam. If all we hear is about radical Islam/terrorist Islam/strawman Islam, if no effort is made to differentiate the realities from each other and from the fiction, cultural exchange and acceptance will never happen.

I don't know where When Gravity Fails falls on the spectrum. I know that, to me, Effinger pulled off the right amount of detail to allow me to fill in this Arab setting with my imagination, but not so much that I felt like I was reading a guidebook. The religion in the book is more of a cultural profusion than universal devotion. Characters, like Marid, who are not practising Muslims still know and use the customs that come with common assumption that everyone is or should be Muslim. I would love to read reviews from the perspective of people more familiar with the middle east and with Islamic culture. Here is the single review I found along those lines.

Within the Budayeen, people are mostly accepted as long as they don't become more trouble than they're worth. In that way, it is like any semi-lawless neighborhood in any noir story, scifi or not, that you've ever read about or seen on TV. There are a couple of big players around who have networks of lesser thugs, stringers, and fetchers; A person's safety is their own responsibility; The rules, especially the hypocritical ones, are impenetrable to foreigners and strictly enforced.

Another rarity found in When Gravity Fails is transgender characters. Marid's girlfriend Yasmin, as well as many of the other prostitutes in the Budayeen (and nearly every woman we meet there is a prostitute in varying shades of noir cliche), are transgender women. Technology has allowed the modifcation and augmentation of bodies such that transgender women can reshape themselves as desired. Marid also has a friend who is a transgender man, a character even rarer than transgender women in fiction (which is not to say that there is an abundance of the latter). I felt the conviction of the author's acceptance of transgender people even when characters showed their prejudices. Effinger didn't make his transgender characters into a circus sideshow. The density of transgender characters in light of the setting (implied religious government, walled-off undesirable neighborhood) does acknowledge their continued marginalization. Here is a great review with insights into the gender and sexuality aspects included in the book.

When it comes to technology in When Gravity Fails, neither the "cyber" (technology) nor the "punk" (societal breakdown) elements of the book were essential to the plot, but they do make the story interesting. Like he did with the setting, Effinger avoids the technological advancements getting dated too quickly by giving it only broad strokes rather than specifics. We know that people have surgery to install some sort of port that lets them "chip in" modules called "moddies" and "daddies".

Moddies are personality modules. With a moddie in, the user's mannerisms, vocal patterns, vices, and desires become those of the recorded personality. Some individuals find having a moddie in disconcerting, others keep one in nearly full-time. The user's control of their body is more akin to steering a vehicle than inhabiting a body. Their high-level goals are conserved but they will no longer go about accomplishing those goals in the same way.

The lure of being someone else temporarily is strong and one class of everyday moddie user is prostitutes who chip in pornographic personalities to suit the preferences of their clients. In light of the single first-hand description we have of a (non-pornographic) moddie, I feel like pornographic moddies are popular because they absolve the user of responsibility for their actions and force a loss of inhibition. I might even go as far as to say that they offer an ease of dissociation from the act should they want or need to. For the user's sexual partner, they get a homogenized sexual experience and a ready excuse to dehumanize their partner. The dehumanized way that someone using a moddie is easily perceived are driven home by a particularly horrific revelation about the non-consensual use of a custom moddie.

Daddies are smaller modules which contain narrow functions. A daddie might allow the user to speak fluent Arabic (though not necessarily every dialect) or might suppress the user's ability to perceive exhaustion. These are less scary than moddies, but still carry the weight of connecting something directly to the user's brain. Suppressing an emotional reaction to an experience in the short term does not mean that the user won't react to the experience once the daddie is removed. In the book the sum of the suppressed emotion is experienced upon the daddie's removal, though I don't think that's how it would actually happen. It makes for good drama anyway.

In all, it was a pretty good book, competently narrated by Jonathan Davis. I'm not into noir detective stories enough to pick up the sequel, but nothing about When Gravity Fails itself is at fault there. It definitely deserves the award nods it received.

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