Just to get it said, and because I think it has larger implications in discussing these works by George Alec Effinger (although maybe not, but it needs to be said anyway): I seldom comment on the design of books, mostly because the design — cover, layout, fonts, and the like — is usually fairly pedestrian, if not downright painful. (I won’t mention how many times I’ve bought a book in spite of the cover.) The reissues of this series from Tom Doherty Associates are anything but. Covers are graced by paintings of interest in their own right that give the mood of the story without “illustrating” it, framed with type and color panels that bring a visual feel both contemporary and classic. This sophisticated treatment continues on the inside, in everything from title page to chapter headings to page numbers. Applause! In past work as a book editor, I’ve had to evaluate designs, and these stories are beautifully presented.
The novels themselves deserve it. Effinger’s series builds a rich picture of a place (the Budayeen, the red-light ghetto in a Middle Eastern city that remains nameless ), a time (the late 22nd century), and a context (the political map is largely composed of the fragments of earlier superpowers, while it seems only the Islamic world has any coherency). The driving forces in the Budayeen are the same as the driving forces in any such place: money, sex, drugs, and power. An added fillip: the use of “moddies,” modules that plug into the brain and allow users to change personalities, and “daddies,” plug-in databases that make specialized knowledge immediately available, is widespread and wide-open.
The city itself is somewhere east of the “liberal” Muslim states of North Africa and north, or possibly west, of the more conservative Arabian countries. It is cosmopolitan, more than a little decadent, riddled with intrigue and corruption (aside from the probable geographic placement, one almost expects to walk past Rick’s American Café). Given that there is no mention of a State of Israel, my own guess is Jerusalem, but I’m just guessing. The city is actually modeled on New Orleans, where Effinger lived for many years. Needless to say, the population is colorful, a mix of hookers (male and female and other — one character refers to eight sexes), sex-changes, assorted toughs and losers, small-time hoods, all owing allegiance, one way or another, to Friedlander Bey, who becomes Audran’s patron.
Against this background, Effinger has given us three detective stories with Marîd Audran, a small-time hustler who makes good, as the usually unwilling detective; if his life didn’t depend on it, he probably wouldn’t get involved. In When Gravity Fails, the chase involves a serial killer — or two killers — who changes personalities and, consequently, MOs. Marîd, who has been a hold-out against getting sockets implanted, finds himself without a choice in the matter. He also finds himself drawn, at least partly unwillingly, into Friedlander Bey’s organization. A Fire In The Sun sees Audran installed as Friedlander Bey’s recognized lieutenant and his liaison to the police, against his will, he tells himself, but he goes along with it. The question this time is the Phoenix File and its relation to a series of grisly murders, and to Friedlander Bey and Abu Adil, Friedlander Bey’s rival and sometime business associate in their legitimate endeavors, and their surprising lifespans. In The Exile Kiss, Abu Adil makes a move that takes Marîd and Friedlander Bey by surprise: they are kidnapped, sentenced to exile, and abandoned in the most inhospitable part of the Arabian desert.
The thread that runs through all of this, of course, is Marîd himself. He’s an introspective character, but not so self-absorbed that he becomes a bore, and under the careless, flip exterior is someone who thinks about his life, although the thinking often comes later than it should. He is another of those science fiction/fantasy heroes whose origins owe as much to the detective fiction of authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett as to any other source, and Effinger is as clear-eyed about portraying him as Audran is about his world.
Although this series has been widely proclaimed as “cyberpunk,” I don’t buy it completely. Yes, the moddies and daddies might reflect a sort of transhumanist idea of “better living through technology,” but Effinger’s vision is too dystopian, and even dyspeptic. If it shares that with the likes of William Gibson, that’s all very well and good, but it also shares it with the likes of Glen Cook. I don’t see the absence of the technology as crippling the stories; Marîd uses technology the same way he uses his drugs, no more, no less. The cyberworld has not taken over the real world — in fact, there isn’t even a real cyberworld on the order of Zelazny’s Donnerjack, or anything close. The Audran cycle is really mid-century American detective fiction with a raygun, so to speak.
And they are terrific detective stories. Effinger was working on a fourth volume at his death in 2002, and we are all the poorer that he didn’t live to finish it. They are fresh, fascinating (particularly for those of us who don’t know as much about Islamic culture as we should these days), both timely and timeless, and eyes-riveted-to-the-page reading. It’s very good to see them in print again.
(Tor, 2005 [orig. Arbor House, 1986])
(Tor, 2006 [orig. Doubleday/Foundation, 1987])
(Tor, 2006 [orig. Doubleday, 1991])