Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Marid Audran, the protagonist in the series of novels which begin with When Gravity Fails, has many things in common with Sam Spade. Both are down and out detectives making their way in the seedy underside of the city. Instead of Los Angeles, however, Audran works in the Budayeen, the rough part of a future, unnamed North African city.
Although a Muslim, Audran is anything but devout, spending the majority of his time popping pills and downing them with alcohol as he mingles with the prostitutes and strippers of the Budayeen. Like Spade, he does have his own sense of ethics and morals. Audran steadfastly refuses augmentation of his brain or modification of his body, two of the major pastimes among the people of the Budayeen. There are times in the novel when the reader wonders if anyone other than Audran remains the sex they were born with.
Audran is thrown into a new case when his perspective client, a Russian, is killed by a man wearing a James Bond "moddie." "Moddie" are personality modules which can be plugged into the brain of a user to allow them to become someone else, either fictional or real. Although Audran is willing to write off the encounter with the Russian, when one of his friends, a sex-changed dancer named Nikki, vanishes, Audran picks up her case with a vengeance. Naturally there are links between the two cases, as well as several other vicious murders which occur in the Budayeen.
Perhaps the most interesting scene in the novel occurs when Marid Audran is brought for an audience with Friedlander Bey, the kingpin of the Budayeen underground. Audran has vowed never to take money or jobs from Bey since to do so would forever put him under Bey's control. When Bey makes Audran getting a plug-in part of the deal, it further strengthens Audran's resistance. The scene is well done and has overtones of Audran as Sam Spade and Bey as Don Vito Corleone.
The Budayeen is a rough neighborhood, and Effinger is not afraid to give graphic descriptions of the violence which occurs within. However, he is skilled enough that none of the scenes come across as being gratuitous or disgusting. The are futher balanced by the lip service most characters pay to the dictates of Islam (and a few who firmly believe in the words of Muhammed). Effinger gives a nice view of Muslims and Arabs which counters their current representation in popular fiction and film.
I'ev already mentioned ties between this novel and a couple of movies. There are other, more direct ties to several books throughout the novel. The aforementioned James Bond moddie is based on the novels by Ian Fleming, not the character made popular by Albert Broccoli. As such, Effinger provides the reader with everything they need to know about the literary Bond. Similarly, when one character pops in a moddie of Nero Wolfe, Effinger takes a little time to make sure the reader understands who Wolfe is and how he operates.
Perhaps the one place Effinger falls short is his description of the relationship between Audran and Lieutenant Okking of the Budayeen Police. Although Audran keeps referring to how much he and Okking dislike each other, the two men appear on friendly terms and work well together. Their dislike is more of a game than the real thing.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about When Gravity Fails is that it is the first book of a series (currently standing at three books), allowing the reader the pleasure of returning to the Budayeen again and again.