January 2006

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Be Careful What You Wish For

Be careful what you wish for.

In my own defense, I didn't realize that a reissue of George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails was a wish that I had. Now that I have held the shiny new version in my hands, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy and stuff, I have another wish, one that can't ever come true. I wish Effinger were still alive, dammit, and living a life that was more conducive to writing than the one he was living pre-death. No matter how many Fairy Godmothers wave their tinkly wands, this is one wish that is beyond anyone's grasp. While some of my favorite books feature a back-from-the-grave component, I do know that these sorts of things are a) impossible and b) always go horribly, horribly wrong.

Publishers, however, can resurrect dead titles. Orb, a division of Tor Books that specializes in releasing out of print works as trade paperbacks, has been tossing its titles right into my reader's wheelhouse. A couple of months ago, they released Brust and Lindholm's The Gypsy, which had only been previously found in the wild in used bookstores. Since I've already given Brust lots of online love (um, not like that), I didn't think it was prudent to gush over The Gypsy. And, frankly, it's not a book worth an embarrassing gush. It's a good solid fantasy, certainly, but the rhythm is off. The story itself feels like it would have made a better song cycle than a novel. Both writers have gone on to create some amazing work. You can see the seeds of what's to come in The Gypsy, but it doesn't knock off one's socks.

But the crafty little Orb elves have been working on a series of releases that have blown my footwear to the next county. Effinger's Marid Audran books, of which Gravity is the first, was one of those sets of titles that I continuously read as a teenager in order to figure out how Effinger was able to cast such a delightful spell. I never learned his secret, however. As thrilled as I was to hold the current edition with its snazzy new Craig Mullins cover art, I was afraid to re-read it, simply because I didn't want to kill the magic of that first experience. (This is also why I can't listen to new Duran Duran, simply because they now make me feel like I wasted so many of my formative years.) As it turns out, Gravity is still a fine novel, one that is full of delightful twists and turns that never lets up.

When Gravity was first published in 1987 it was a ground-breaking accomplishment that helped define cyberpunk. Now it feels kind of stale, which was inevitable. So many of Effinger's ideas, like personas stored on computer discs that you can jack into your brain, have become SOP in the genre. Still, its importance can't be overstated. While much of the glory for the subgenre is heaped upon Gibson, Effinger owned the mechanics of plot and pace, crafting cybernoir tales that were both excellent mysteries and deep character studies that still resonate in unforgettable ways.

Some of this is due to the magnetism of the main character Audran. His voice feels authentic, like he happened to drift onto the barstool next to you in some dank dive one night. He's recounting his latest adventure to the bartender, who you can tell he knows intimately, and pitching it so that you can eavesdrop without guilt. You can't help but listen.

Outside the dive is Budayeen, the underbelly of some already sketchy Arab city. While the Budayeen is loosely based on Effinger's adopted New Orleans, it has its own vibe, one that is part Mardi Gras and part day before Ramadan. Here, a killer is stalking Audran's friends, who quickly become your friends, too, and you don't want to see anything happen to them. Yet awful things do, Audran must make consequence-rich choices. And you can't stop reading to find out what is going to happen next.

Like I said, it still stands up, even if the tech feels dated because, well, it is. While Gravity stands on its own without any niggling lingering questions, Audran's story continues in two more books, A Fire in the Sun, which will be re-released in February 2006, and The Exile Kiss, which is due in June. Effinger also wrote a serious of snarkily funny short stories about a kick-ass chick named Muffy, who is strikingly similar to a certain Vampire Slayer, so much so I wonder if the Whedon has ever read a copy of the long out of print collection of these tales. (On a side note -- I used to have a copy of Effinger's Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson but loaned it to someone who I've now forgotten. Which is too bad because I'd love to re-read the Cthulhu inspired "Maureen Birnbaum and the Looming Awfulness." I'd like to beg Orb to acquire the rights to this title as well, but probably shouldn't be greedy.)

Even before Audran and Muffy, Effinger's work met with acclaim, so much so that it seemed like his career would be one of glory and abundance. Effinger's first novel, What Entropy Means to Me, was nominated for a Nebula; his short story "Schrodinger's Kitten," won both a Nebula and a Hugo. With the Audran stories it felt like he was truly hitting his stride. Sadly, the story just stops, because Effinger had the nerve to die in 2002 before he'd exhausted this rich material.

Given a choice, I'm sure he'd like to still be writing as well. But his ill-health led to enormous hospital bills, which were so large that a lawsuit by the hospital tied up the rights to his characters and stories for a decade or so. Eventually the suit was dropped but the damage had been done. He didn't publish anything substantial after 1991. Budayeen Nights, which features the first two chapters of a new Audran novel as well as some Budayeen short stories, was released in 2003.

In a way, his death might have been kind, considering what has recently happened to his beloved New Orleans. That may have killed him. While it is wonderful to see his work back in print, it is still a small disappointment when you think about what could have been.