Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review:: When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger

Title: When Gravity Fails
Author: George Alec Effinger
Format: eBook
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

I was thrilled when I stumbled upon this noir detective cyberpunk novel, often ranked as one of the hidden scifi gems. I was especially excited when I realized there was a trans character! Then I remembered that this book was published in 1987. I quickly became less enthused.
I really love cyberpunk. I saw this listed in a cyberpunk collection and poked at it and it seemed interesting. It was also listed on Goodreads as one of the best underrated SciFi books, along with other gems I love like The Stainless Steel Rat. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that When Gravity Fails holds none of the quirky charm of Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series, primarily because George Alec Effinger is taking himself seriously the entire time.

The book is written in first person, something I don't particularly like, but makes sense, consider it's trying to be a noir detective story. However, for all that it tries to be a mystery, the plot is so cut and dry when you boil it down to its essentials that I honestly feel like the book would have been better off just trying to be a straight up cyberpunk novel.

The protag Marîd constantly has money issues and gets a job that seems great, but then James Bond (literally) kills the dude he's working for in the middle of the conversation. He doesn't really investigate because the police tell him not to. But then this girl he knows disappears and then some other girl assassins he knows get killed brutally and now his detective senses are flaring and he has go to find James Bond and avenge someone else's murder for Papa...

The plot is really boring. Not only is it boring, absolutely nothing Marîd does pushes it forward. Every single movement in the plot either stumbles upon him or is forced by someone else. Perhaps the reason he's such a shitty detective is because he's in a cyberpunk novel but is pretty much the only person who isn't wired because... he's scared. Not too scared to do a shitton of drugs, though. It makes no sense.

Transhumanism plays a pretty heavy bit in the book, although it's not directly called that. Most folks are modded in some way, whether it's physical or neural. The neural mods tend to be plug-and-play for folks whose brains are "wired." There are moddies, which are personality chips, basically, and daddies, which provide information, or, it seems, can keep the brain from realizing that your bladder is full or you're feeling pain. It's not clear.

What also wasn't clear to me is why so many people use moddies in this world. Now, if they were personality augments, I'd get it. And in fact, briefly it's mentioned that these do exist; you can get a moddy that will help you be more self-assured or something. But the moddies people are usually toting actually wipe their entire personality and make them think they're someone else. These are used a lot as "marital aids," apparently. (Speaking of marital aids, whenever you'd see the word "fuck" in this book, it's replaced with "jam." As in, those two are jamming. It's even used as an epithet, which really kept ruining my immersion in the book because it just never felt right.)

I mean, I get the need for escapism, but I just don't understand why so many people would want to throw themselves away and be someone else regularly, when they could be themselves but awesomer. Actually being the other person and believing you're the other person takes away all the fun of role-play, in my opinion, and does very little for true escapism. However, this might explain a bit more how the protag is literally looking to hunt down James Bond.


The book has an interesting setup for cyberpunk. This book was written during the cold war, and the author states that both the US and the USSR fell apart because of the cold war and basically democracy and communism ended as they shattered. This doesn't explain, uh, most of Europe to me, but it's a neat way to kind of push forward the kind of social changes required for a cyberpunk atmosphere without handwaving it. Unfortunately, this is just told to us point-blank and absolutely nothing is ever done with it.

All of that aside, the real issue I had with the book was its treatment of ... well, all the women. You find out in the second chapter that Marîd's girlfriend wasn't born a woman. And then you get to deal with a litany of microaggressions where he stereotypes transgender folks (who are referred to as sex-changes in the book because they'll never truly be their gender even though they've had their bodies reworked to a chromosomal level...), points out that they're not "real women," and just adds on a whole bunch of transmisogynist baggage.

On top of "real women" and "sex-changes," there are "debs" who are described as "pre-op transsexuals," or more often with really horribly transphobic language I don't feel like posting here and as not being able to make up their mind.

In fact, whenever the author wants to highlight that a woman isn't trans (which pretty much all of them but two are, interestingly enough) he feels the need to point out how they're a real woman. Oh, and Marîd can tell because of their feet. Talk about shattering my suspension of disbelief...

This is a world where extensive body modification can be done. You an literally get your body reworked to a chromosomal level. They'll shatter your hips and reform them. But Marîd can always tell "sex-changes" from "real women" because their feet are so big. The argument is that doctors won't work on hands or feet because there are too many bones. There is a world where you have plug and play modifications for your brain... but modifying feet is too difficult.

Or maybe a world where cis men can't out trans folk is too difficult.

Oh, also, all of the women are sex workers or tend bar for a venue where sex work is done. The book tries to be positive about it, but oh, oh it fails. Also, there's some seriously fetishistic racism going on, talking about all the exotic women. Which I guess makes sense, considering this is a novel set in Cairo that is really constantly creepy about women and has an 80s porn stache:

It also explains why as far as I can tell, the extent of Marîd's relationship with his girlfriend is purely sexual. See, all women in the novel are sex objects.

Speaking of mods... I probably wouldn't have liked this book even if it wasn't full of transphobia and misogyny simply because it was taking itself seriously whilst being stupidly ridiculous. (Like I said... the protag is looking for James Bond.) The Stainless Steel Rat can get away with that because it's self-aware and parodying Golden Age skiffy. Here, we have a novel that wants to be taken as super serious with an assassin geisha with a poison tooth, but it's okay because the poison is only deadly in the blood stream, not when swallowed. I hope she never gets a stomach ulcer.

There's a guy who got one of his lungs replaced with a lung that constantly produces hallucinogens that will eventually cause his brain to degenerate. Oh, and he's Marîd's driver. And this isn't cyberpunky enough that the cars drive themselves. Yes, I know I want the guy who's constantly tripping to be my driver.

And again, the protag is actually, seriously hunting down James Bond.

Sigh. I feel like I should have more examples, but I'm just glad this book is over. Don't read it, unless you want to be baffled at how creepy the author probably is.


  1. I think I'll just be glad you've taken one for the team.

    1. Someone had to do it... I still can't understand how it has so many good reviews on Goodreads and none of the reviews except one even brought up the rampant transphobia.