Friday, August 26, 2005

Ex Libris: A Dark Grim Future

"They don't advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop. Ex-blade runner. Ex-killer." Decker, Blade Runner (1982)

For me, speculative fiction always has certain resonances. In this case, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Pashazade and George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails reminded me of Ridley Scott's SF-noir movie, Blade Runner.

Everyone knows what science-fiction is. Likewise, noir-- a film style and mood that portrays its principal characters in "a nihilistic and existential world"-- has established connections with SF (i.e. cyberpunk sub-genre's view of a near-future dystopian Earth). However, unlike cyberpunk classics like William Gibson's Neuromancer, the two novels don't deal directly with information technology (more from an angle) but rather with character and atmosphere.

Specifically, Grimwood and Effinger frame their stories from a dark urban perspective courtesy of their cities: respectively, El Iskandryia, an alternate history North African city, and the Budayeen, the red light district of an unnamed Arab country in the 23rd century.

Effinger's book, mentioned in the same breath as Gibson's in terms of cyberpunk classics, is the earlier work. Marid Audran, a drug addict, alcoholic and freelance "fixer" who lives just outside the law, runs afoul with the local crime lord Friedlander Bey and the police when murders start cropping up in the Budayeen. Marid is "unwired" or unmodified by any technology but because of the crimes, he must decide whether to become more than human and lose his sense of independence.

Grimwood's later book draws a lot of comparison to Effinger's due to locale similarities. Ashraf al-Mansur is transported from a Seattle prison supposedly as he's the heir of the Emir of the Ottoman Empire (which in this alternate history, survived World War I). However, Ashraf is a loose cannon and he becomes the prime suspect in the murder of his benefactor, on the run with only a vague understanding of where he is and who he is supposed to be. Unlike Marid, Ashraf had been modified by his wayward mother so he has a lot of tricks up his sleeve.

Of the two books, Grimwood's work favors the noir side of the SF-noir tag as the science-fiction and the alternate history isn't so well-developed. Rather, Grimwood focuses on the setting of the story with images of characters sipping bitter coffee on busy, sun-scorched sidewalk cafes. On the other hand, Effinger's book takes the SF side as he details what it means to be human in the face of technology that can adjust your personality to whatever you want be: movie star, porn queen or serial killer.

Overall, I'm torn on which of the two books is better. As books go, Grimwood's novel is different from the usual reading genre fare in terms that its sum is greater than its parts-- it's more than an SF or detective or alternate history tale. However, the ending didn't work for me and as a result, I couldn't find the urge to buy the succeeding books. (Though a stand-alone, Pashazade is the first book of the Arabesk Trilogy.)

Effinger's book, on the other hand, worked better overall in integrating all the story elements. However, Effinger's characters didn't draw me in as it did Grimwood's: Marid and the rest of Effinger's characters were too dissipated for my taste. (Effinger, who died in 2002, wrote this as the first of three stand-alone books. Fortunately, though my copy is now out-of-print, it seems like Effinger is getting a new lease in life.)

Your mileage may vary.

No comments: