Effinger's WHEN GRAVITY FAILS: super-noir cyberpunk Middle East

Continuing with her excellent series of critical essays on classic works of science fiction for Tor.com, Jo Walton takes on one of my favorite novels: George Alec Effinger's super-hard-boiled, Middle Eastern cyberpunk novel When Gravity Fails. Effinger was the second real sf writer I ever met (the first being Edward Llewellyn, who came and spoke at the D&D day-camp I attended when I was 11 or 12); I was a gofer an the Ad Astra science fiction convention where he was guest of honor. He was so incredibly gracious and generous to the star-struck 15 year old who brought him his water and made sure he knew where the green room was that I immediately ran out and read all his books; the one that floored me was Gravity. Walton, it seems, agrees:

Effinger's writing on the word and sentence level is just beautiful, the voice is perfect, and remains so all the way through, and the way he wraps the theme around there is what he does in the whole book.

This was a book that couldn't have happened without cyberpunk, but which itself isn't cyberpunk. There are no hackers here, and almost no computers--though it feels reasonable for the Budayeen that there wouldn't be. Holoporn, yes, drugs to get you up or down, prostitutes of all genders and some in between, personality modules of anything from salesmen to serial killers via sex kittens, but no computers. The street is what comes from cyberpunk, and perhaps the neural wiring, a little. But what Effinger does with it, making it a North African street that really feels like something out of the future of another culture, is entirely his own. Effinger said the Budayeen was based on the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he lived, as much as it was based on anywhere, but it has the feel of a real place, grimy and edgy and run down and full of the wrong sort of bars.

"Not much changes on the street, only the faces." George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails (Walton, Tor.com)

When Gravity Fails (Amazon)


  1. Brilliant, brilliant books. I haven’t read them in years, but I’m now reminded that they’re sitting dormant on my shelf in my basement office. I may have to give them another read-through this weekend.

    I also remember the old PC game quite fondly – I’m sure it hasn’t aged nearly as well as the books, but they were pretty faithful to the books, as I recall.

    And wasn’t there an RPG supplement for R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 system? Man, I’m feeling old now…

  2. This was one of the novels listed in Cyberpunk 101 in Signal: Communication Tools for the Information Age (ISBN 0-517-57084-X), where I first learned of Cyberpunk as a sub-genre of SF. When Gravity Fails is part of a trilogy, and the the whole set is great. All the muslim cultural references ring true, whether or not they are. This is great stuff, you should read it.

    I had an opportunity to shake hands with GAE, he was a very nice man. I was sad to hear he died, and with him the Budayeen.

  3. What a fantastic book.

    The recent prints with the Craig Mullins covers are fantastic as well.

  4. I haven’t got my hands on the final part of the triology yet, but these are great reads.

    Reading Effinger you can smell the sweat and cumin in the air, hear the call to prayer rumbling all around, like a jet plane taking off. The human element is much more present here than in other popular science fiction.

    I couldn’t help thinking that this story could pretty seamlessly translate into a screenplay.

  5. I got a copy of this leatherbound from an estate sale and had no idea what it was about. Turns out it was one of the luckier moments in my life, because “When Gravity Fails” is probably one of the better books I have ever read. I put this beauty on par with “Neuromancer” as far as visions of the future go. Effinger is one of those authors that’s getting forgotten slowly and it’s very sad. I suggest reading Effinger to every one who asks me for a book to read.

    What’s funny is that in that same estate sale I got a copy of “Rogue Moon” by Algis Budrys, which also blew my mind. If you can find a copy, you will not be let down.

    Lando from the Ozone Nightmare

  6. A Fire In The Sun and The Exile Kiss are the other two. Both are back in print. You cannot stop at the first. Gritty, compelling, and with superb continuity, they comprise one of the great masterpieces of cyberpunk.

    Interestingly, Effinger never visited the Middle East, though his time in New Orleans may have shaped his penchant for setting his tales in dark, culturally dense, urban environments.

  7. Wow, this brings be back a couple years. Great book. Great series too. Up there with “Snow Crash” as the best cyberpunk.

  8. Effinger also wrote some fantasy novels based on the Zork games in the 1980s — I have no idea why. I mean, presumably he needed to pay the rent or something, but generally novelizations and tie-ins are done by people who want to break into writing — not established authors.

  9. Thanks for posting this, I’m with @musashi74, I’m going to drag these out, dust them off and reread them.

  10. On a tangent: I can’t help but wonder whether the name “Effinger” originated as a euphemistic variant of “Fuckinger”, which was a more extreme version of “Kissinger”.

  11. One of my favourite books, and one that ages well where other cyberpunk novels, in retrospect, more like Nagel painting pastiches of 1980’s stereotypes than the groundbreaking fiction they were pushed as at their time of publication.

    Effinger really steps into amazingly fresh territory here. There’s a lot of his beloved New Orleans in these books, hot rodded through an exercise of imaginative worldbuilding.

    Circuit’s Edge, the computer game based on the book is definitely worth checking out. With all the transsexual prostitutes, drugs and street life in the game, it’s the kind of product that would never get made today without having its narrative deconstructed and perverted on CNN as “controversial”.

  12. The saga its beautiful and decadent i loved the characters the Budayen, Friedlander Bey. I’m so sad

  13. Talsorian did a RPG supplement (ISBN 0-937279-12-9), for their Cyberpunk game, based on the book with input from the author. There is a bit about netrunning (Chapter 6):

    “Things aren’t as simple for netrunners in 2202 as they were in 2020. The Net that once covered the globe has lots of holes in it. To use a cyberdeck you must have a cory-plug (corymbic implant).”

    1. Indeed, we (at Talsorian) did do a Cyberpunk supplement with George. A wonderful guy with a quirky sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of food (he was a restaurant reviewer too.) And yes, the Budayeen was New Orleans–George once dragged the entire Talsorian crew out for a restaurant crawl in the Quarter, and started things out with a visit to Chinese restaurant where the waitresses were all transvestites–really incredibly beautiful transvestites worthy of a Marid’s attentions. I thought one of my editors was going to have a brain seizure trying to reconcile his attraction with his inherent straight side. From there. we got a guided Budayeen tour from George–we’ve never looked at the novels (or the Quarter) the same since.

  14. I loved these books. Unfortunately, I got rid of them when moving to free up space and to cut down on the number of boxes to move. Wish they were available in an ebook format, I would pay for that!

  15. Way back when, when I read that Usenet that there would be a fourth novel called Word of Night, I was so ecstatic. I had forgotten all about these books, thanks for reminding me Cory. Time to dig them out and re-read them again.

    – Will Cameron

  16. Circuit’s Edge was the first PC game I ever played on my parents 286 back in the day. About a year or so ago, I picked up a copy just browsing covers at Powell’s books and was hit with a crazy sense of deja vu when I started reading it. Prior to that I had no idea that the video game was based on a novel.

  17. Man I loved these books. Marid and The Stones That Speak. I wanted corymbic implants after reading the first one. I’ll have to re-read these now.

  18. Quite a few years ago I was asked to write some spec music for a film version of this book. Effinger had written a screenplay and the director/producer was looking for financiers. The music I wrote was used in the package to hopefully get money to get it made. I read the book for research and was blown away. I really wish the film had been made, not just for my sake, but for the chance to actually see this story on the screen.

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