I suspect I'm like most readers—slightly jaded and with an over-appreciation for those books in the genre I like at the expense of those I don't. I tend to keep my eye on what's new and exciting, and do my fair share of skipping from what's hot to the next great flash in the pan, while neglecting the wealth of other books on the shelf merely because I haven't heard much about them.
Slipstream? Old news. Steampunk? Been there. New Weird? Ho hum. Cyberpunk? Of course.
Every now and then I might hold my nose and go back and read one of the "masters" but only after they've had the seal of approval stamped upon them. I'll dip into Heinlein to say I've read him, I'll consider myself one of the "cool kids" for reading Philip K. Dick, and do my best to follow the latest hullabaloo with James Tiptree Jr.
It's a bad way to read, and I do my best to struggle against the habit. In my defense, I'll say I used to be worse. I've learned from my mistakes—the most glaring of them being George Alec Effinger, and in particular his trio of science-fiction novels, When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss, set in the back alleys of the Budayeen, a section of a nameless twenty-fourth century North African city.
The three novels recount the adventures of the street-wise "fixer", Marid Audran. Marid lives in a world of sex-change operations and personality enhancement through chemicals and electronics—a future where one can gain the knowledge of a saint or a killer simply by purchasing the appropriate software. Each of the novels documents Marid's continuing and increasing involvement with one of the shadowy kingpins of the underworld, Friedlander Bey.
It was cyberpunk written in the initial years between the first florid burst of William Gibson and the eventual and ultimate methamphetamine punch of Neal Stephanson. Effinger wrote his own kind of book, taking his cues more from Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler than from the world of software design and cutting edge technology, packing When Gravity Fails with reflections from his own life among the strippers and nightclubs of New Orleans. Picture Bladerunner meets Casablanca and you'll get the idea.
More than the other authors he was categorized with, Effinger took high-tech and left it in the gutter. While most of the cyberpunk authors portrayed the world as increasingly coming under the influence of the Far East, Effinger went in another direction and showed a future where Islam and the Middle East are ascendant. There are corners we recognize as science fiction—a Lunar Colony—and as the successors of our own world—Free Kurdistan, Nuevo Tejanos, and the Federated States of New England—but these details are given in passing along with other snapshots of Effinger's world-building like Lufty Gad, the Palestinian detective, and Honey Pilar, the current reigning sex symbol who sells personality modules of herself to her avid fans.
For Effinger the details that mattered were the ones in the streets of the Budayeen: Bill the permanently narcotized cab driver, Laila the shop owner who never wears the same personality twice, Chiriga the refugee bartender with filed teeth, and the sex-changes that populate the bars and cause Marid most of his share of frustration. It becomes a neighborhood to the reader, a place they can recognize and imagine. It's a way for Effinger to explore the ideas of faith, loyalty, and the potential for individual change.
Marid as a protagonist is a bit deluded, often misguided, but nevertheless compelling and likable. His view of himself as he narrates his adventures is slightly at odds with the opinion the reader might have of him. Like all of us, Marid gives himself the benefit of the doubt—even when he doesn't really deserve it. His loyalty to Friedlander Bey puts him at odds with that loyalty he has given to his friends. His efforts to be a free agent put him in conflict with what he must do to be a good citizen.
Rereading the books, I realized how unlikely it would be for them to be written now without resorting to the sort of fear-mongering that shows up in books such as Robert Ferringo's Prayers for the Assassin, a post-September 11th novel where America becomes occupied by an Islamic theocracy. It would have been hard for Effinger to write the books now with the same amount of freedom and license needed to craft such a world. Critics would read politics into the story and rob the novels of their sense of wonder.
It's a strange development to see happen. Normally science fiction becomes outdated because of the advancement of technology, which renders most authors' projections into quaint fables. But with these novels, it feels almost as if we lost part of our capacity to imagine freely certain futures without viewing them with fear.
Sadly, Effinger died before being able to fully realize his dream of the Budayeen. There is the suggestion that everything would ultimately have been tied together—Friedlander Bey's grand scheme would emerge with Marid enmeshed in the middle of it. But readers would be mistaken to consider the story incomplete. Each of the novels can be read as a stand-alone. I'm happy I've rediscovered them, and do kick myself for having ignored the later volumes when they came out. What can I say except that I was younger and stupider then?
Thankfully, there's a bit of an Effinger renaissance going on now. Besides these three novels, two collections of short stories, Budayeen Nights and Live! From Planet Earth have been published in the past few years, so there's plenty of material here for new readers to enjoy.