Thursday, 16 January 2014

When Gravity Fails by George Effinger

When Gravity Fails was pretty good, without ever quite achieving greatness. I enjoyed it, but the pieces never entirely came together and swept me away. It was, however, part of my ongoing project to read all the Hugo nominees for novels. It's going to take a while.

This book is cyberpunk, with a strong dash of noir. (Not that that's surprising - a lot of cyberpunk seems to revolve around noir storytelling.) It is less sterile than Neuromancer, much messier and more lively. So, if it's cyberpunk, what are the modifications that have been made to bodies that bring whether or not someone is still human into question?

In this case, moddys and daddys. Moddys are other personalities that you can plug into your brain and act as they would act. They're used for sex, a lot. And also so you can be James Bond. Given the fear the main character has of these types of modifications, and how he describes plugging in Nero Wolfe (and I did totally love that it was Nero Wolfe), outside of the sex, I'm not sure why people would want to. It might be helpful, I suppose, but it seems like you're a passive observer while another personality takes over your brain. That's interesting. I'm just not sure why it's so enticing that Marid, the main character, is known as the one man who doesn't have plugs in his head.

Daddys, though, they do seem more interesting. A little like a babelfish, but more limited in scope. They're add-ons, languages, skills, hunger suppressants, reflex sharpeners, whatever you could want to give yourself an edge.

This world, though, is not the corporate one we see in a lot of other cyberpunk. It's set in the Budayeen, a crime-ridden district in a city in the Middle East that I don't think is ever named. We get flashes about the rest of the world - Russia, the States, and most of Europe have fractured into tiny states. The context for this book is Islamic, and that was definitely interesting and unexpected.

The other major modification is that sex changes seem to be relatively easy (although I don't think they're cheap, which raises the question of how people from this very, very poor district are all affording them). I'd be hard-pressed to go back in the book and find a woman who was born a woman. Although there are plenty of men who were born men. This perspective on the fluidity of gender could be interesting, but it's not handled as well as, say, Varley does it. Once "changed," women who were born men fall into the most stereotypical of gendered behaviours. That's a bit of an issue.

Marid, the lead character, is approached in a bar about finding man's son. But that man is shot to death right in front of him, by James Bond. Marid tries to walk away, but one of his friends comes and approaches him for help, and then disappears. Shortly thereafter, other people start turning up dead, some tidy assassinations, others horrific and bloody. And Marid is caught in the middle, and employed by the local crime lord (who he swore he'd never work for) to look into it.

Marid is a reluctant hero, and a lot of the book is him lounging in bed not looking into things when he really should be.

But the mystery is suitably twisty, and the world very interesting. The characters were a little weak, but this is worth checking out if you're looking for a different kind of cyberpunk.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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