When Gravity Fails by George Effinger
Gollancz ebook SF Gateway
First published 1987
I found When Gravity Fails on my Kindle with no memory of buying it and no notion of the book’s history. I have a feeling that I heard about it at Continuum, Melbourne’s science fiction and fantasy convention. Certainly, I wasn’t aware that it is part of the Gollancz SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. I probably wouldn’t have read it if I’d realised it was. Masterworks so often feel dated. In any event, When Gravity Fails was on my Kindle and my Kindle, being a Kindle, jumped me over all of the fore matter and I hit chapter one under my very own veil of ignorance.
When Gravity Fails is a delight. It’s rich, curious and full of all the wonder that a good SF crime crossover should offer.
The Budayeen is the seedy side of an unnamed Arabic city and Algerian-born Marîd Audran is the unarmed, pill-popping, unwired, unbelieving Muslim guide to the Budayeen’s glorious mashup culture. Marîd does a bit of this and that for money, including the odd investigation that falls into his lap when nudged off Lieutenant Okking’s desk.
At the beginning of the novel, Marîd meets a new client, a Reconstructed Russian named Bogatyrev, who has a missing person problem. Things go violently wrong and Marîd begins a world-weary and paradoxically idealistic investigation aimed at returning the Budayeen to its everyday exploitative, drug-taking, haggling, peddling, violent existence. But not back to chaos because the Budayeen is supremely orderly as it veers from old to new vices and back again.
One of the most delicious aspects of When Gravity Fails is the contrast between the sin and violence of the Budayeen and the courtly interactions between the Muslim characters: faithful and faithless alike. When Marîd sits before Abdoulaye and Abdoulaye’s boss Hassan who are overtly violent and dangerous, Marîd is offered coffee spiced with cardamom. Marîd says, ‘May your table last forever’ and Hassan returns, ‘May Allah lengthen your life’ and this is just the beginning of the invocations that last through several cups, all aimed at protecting everyone’s health, welfare, family and people. Underneath the extravagant, flowery, prayerful well-wishing that continues throughout the book, Marîd walks on a knife edge.
It is the infidels who enter the city as marks, sex workers and corrupt businessmen who seem brash, mannerless – even childlike in their lack of culture.
If you enjoy the feeling of being in a different but familiar world and you like your SF and hardboiled crime with a twist, this is a fabulous read. I highly recommend it. When Gravity Fails was a Hugo and Nebular shortlisted novel and US-born George Effinger is said to have helped found Cyberpunk as a genre.
When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett
Allen and Unwin
Right from the first few pages I was intensely interested in When We Have Wings, Claire Corbett’s first science-fiction novel.
The protagonist, Peri, is flying, carrying baby Hugo and searching for her missing friend Luisa. The scene is frightening and real and somehow I know that this isn’t a caricature world but something much closer to home. It’s clear that Peri is in mortal danger and has brought Hugo into that danger with her. A baby who doesn’t belong to her; a baby recklessly exposed to the elements.
When Peri and Hugo disappear, a private detective named Zeke Fowler is called in by Peter Chesshyre, Hugo’s father. Zeke is a flightless man, a man who is a failure at aspiring to better things, but Chesshyre and his wife Avis Katon would rather accept Zeke’s help than deal with the police. The question is are these winged and glamorous parents just protecting their privacy or do they have something else to hide?
Corbett’s Australian future is one of haves and have nots, familiar people in a just-around-the-corner future. In Corbett’s world you have the feeling that everyone has rubbed along together in a socially mobile past but wings have created a seismic shift in human society. Zeke, Zeke’s son Thomas, Peri, Hugo, Avis, Peter and all the other characters face live in a world where wings can only be acquired with great wealth, youth and good health.
And who are the rest of us, us non-fliers? The five Rs, we’re called: Retarded, Retired, Religious, Rationed and Regional. In other words, anyone to poor or two old or too disabled for Flight. What these contemptuous words disguise is that we ordinary humans are still, by far, the majority. Too old means anyone over about twenty-five and too poor covers almost everyone else, including those from Rural and Regional Areas—RaRA-land, which is anywhere outside the City. Too disabled is anyone too fat or too stupid or suffering from any other condition contraindicated to handle the treatments and then to keep up the ferocious regimen of physical perfection needed to get you up into the sky and keep you from falling out of it screaming. Believe me, there is no equality of opportunity in the world of Flight.
There are many reasons to love this book. I’ve always been interested in thought provoking representations of pregnancy and childcare and this book has both. Pregnancy seems to get none of the speculation it surely deserves and childcare is often depicted as dull fare undertaken by stereotypical female characters.
Corbett clearly draws on her personal and working background, which includes a childhood in a politically active family and a professional life that includes working in a sexual assault counselling agency and policy writing for Bob Carr on issues such as health, water, genetically modified organisms and a later period working at New South Wales Health on child and family issues.
When We Have Wings has all the pace, action, interesting characters and tension you need in a mystery science-fiction crossover novel. It also has a very sophisticated approach to its complex subject, which includes child protection, religious and political corruption, social advantage and disadvantage and the divide between rural, regional and city-dwellers.
If I have any criticism of the book it’s a very small one. There’s a romantic relationship and a love scene towards the end of the novel, involving a male character I disliked. It all felt a little traditional for my taste. It’s only a tiny criticism and you should not be put off by my quibbling reaction.
If you’ve dreamed of flying, then When We Have Wings is going to open up a whole new world for you: a world where the sky’s topography is every bit as detailed as the land’s.