George Alec Effinger: The Marîd Audran Trilogy

Covers of the Marid Audran trilogy, by George Alec Effinger

All in all, my life had changed so much that my days of poverty and insecurity seemed like a thirty-year nightmare. Today I’m well fed, well dressed, and well liked by the right people, and all it’s cost me is what you might expect: my self-respect and the approval of most of my friends.

George Alec Effinger was a science fiction writer and humorist mainly active during the 1970s and ’80s. He was a prolific short story writer during those decades, but is perhaps best remembered now for his three exotic cyberpunk novels featuring the cynical and unfortunate antihero, Marîd Audran. Effinger had sketched out a character arc for Audran across five novels, but, dogged by ill-health, he was unable to write during much of the 1990s, and died tragically young. After his death his wife, Barbara Hambly, assembled some additional material from Audran’s story universe, and these were published, with notes by Hambly, in a collection entitled Budayeen Nights (2003).

Effinger had a sly sense of humour, which lurks constantly in the background of the Audran books, but which is placed front and centre in the two other novels of his I’ve read, the surreal time-travel romps The Nick Of Time (1985) and The Bird Of Time (1986). And you can probably guess that the theme of the short stories collected in 1993 as Maureen Birnbaum: Barbarian Swordsperson (which also graces my shelves) is not entirely serious. The eponymous and deeply self-absorbed heroine finds herself magically transported to a variety of fantasy and science-fictional settings (Barsoom and Pellucidar, among others), and then returns to breathlessly report her adventures to her best friend, Bitsy Spiegelman.

So it was characteristic of Effinger to take a well-worn subgenre and to rotate it slightly, making it into something new and different. And that’s what he did with the emerging tropes of cyberpunk, which had blossomed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984).

The Audran stories take place at the start of the twenty-third century, and are centred on the inhabitants of a walled enclave called The Budayeen, a seedy quarter of an unnamed Middle Eastern city, which had its origin in a mournful New Wave short story “The City On The Sand” published in 1973. The wider world has undergone a process of political fragmentation (much like the world of Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, which I’ve previously reviewed), so the Budayeen plays host to an international cast of refugees and émigrés, as well as the local Arab/Berber/French population. Technologically, the main developments which drive the stories are twofold. Firstly, body modification is easy and routine—especially gender reassignment, which has become an unremarkable feature of Budayeen society. Secondly, neurological enhancement is similarly routine—people are fitted with skull sockets, wired into their brains, into which they can plug software and data. “Moddies” will modify your personality—so you can turn yourself into a more confident person, or a fictional detective, or something altogether darker. “Daddies” provide more basic functions—you can immediately have command of a new language, or make yourself immune to fatigue or boredom. Most of the inhabitants of the Budayeen spend much of their lives with moddies and daddies plugged into their heads.

When we first meet Effinger’s first-person narrator, Marîd Audran, he is a small-time hustler scratching a living in the Budayeen. He prides himself on surviving by his own native wit, without any neurological enhancement. He does, however, only manage to get through the day by using industrial quantities of drugs. He maintains a precarious independence from the two principal powers in the Budayeen—the corrupt local police, and the local equivalent of a mafia godfather, Friedlander Bey. The trilogy’s narrative arc sees Audran sucked into a succession of events that modify his relationship with all these major forces in his life.

So the context of these stories is reminiscent of the seedier side of New York in the 1970s, as depicted in the TV series The Deuce—a cast of characters hanging around in various sleazy locations, trying to make ends meet in various marginally legal ways, while staying out of trouble with both the law and the local crime lord. (Effinger reportedly based the society of the Budayeen on the French Quarter of his native New Orleans.) But the whole set-up is viewed through the prism of a Muslim Arab society as mannered and courteous as the Golden Age culture of One Thousand And One Nights. Characters quote the Koran to each other, agonize over their less-than-Islamic life choices, haggle histrionically, and exchange long series of courtesies and polite circumlocutions before getting down to business. Here, for instance, is Audran pleading for his life when wrongly accused of the murder of one of Friedlander Bey’s lieutenants:

[Friedlander Bey asked,] “Then, let me put this question to you: How does one revenge a murder?”
There was a long, glacial silence. There was only one answer, but I took a while to frame my reply in my mind. “O Shaykh” I said at last, “a death must be met with another death. That is the only revenge. It is written in the Straight Path, ‘Retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the murdered’; and also, ‘One who attacketh you, attack him in a like manner as he attacked you.’ But it also says elsewhere, ‘The life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds retaliation. But whoso forgoeth it in the way of charity, it shall be expiation for him.’ I am innocent of this murder, O Shaykh, and to seek revenge wrongfully is a crime worse than the killing itself.”
“Allah is Most Great,” murmured [Friedlander Bey]. He looked at me in surprise. “I had heard that you were an infidel, my nephew, and it caused me pain. Yet you have a certain knowledge of the noble Qur’ân.”

But Effinger’s dialogue can also get straight to the point:

She looked lovely. I hated to bother her now with my news. I decided to put it off as long as I could.
“So,” she said, looking up at me and grinning, “how was your day?”
“Tamiko’s dead,” I said.

And Audran has an occasionally Chandleresque instinct for the well-turned phrase:

Her lipstick, for reasons best known to Allah and [herself], was a kind of pulpy purple color; her lips looked like she’d bought them first and forgot to put them in the refrigerator while she shopped for the rest of her face.

At the start of the first novel, When Gravity Fails (1986), Audran is in the midst of being hired to find a missing person when his client is shot dead in front of him, by an assassin who is apparently wearing a moddy that makes him believe he is James Bond. A succession of other murders follow, in a variety of violent styles. Some involve people who are friends of Audran and/or employees of Friedlander Bey—at which point Audran is given an offer he can’t refuse by “Papa” Friedlander, and finds himself obliged to undergo neurological modification whether he likes it or not. The story rattles along as the body count increases and we encounter the colourful cast of supporting characters—Saied The Half-Hajj, who became distracted halfway through his pilgrimage to Mecca; Laila the elderly and subtly deranged moddy dealer, her brain damaged by endlessly sampling her own wares; Chiri the East African club owner, who has filed some of her teeth to points; and Bill the taxi-driver, who has had his body modified to continuously infuse a hallucinogen into his blood. (It’s not clear why Audran habitually uses Bill’s services, given Bill’s tendency to swerve to avoid hallucinations.) And it’s a typical bit of Effinger humour that, when Audran first reflects on how to use his new neurological implants to track down the psychopathic murderer(s) roaming the Budayeen, he decides to use a moddy that will turn him into Nero Wolfe, the fictional armchair detective created by Rex Stout. His plan to sit at home thinking deeply while someone else does the dangerous stuff is foiled only by the the Half-Hajj’s point-blank refusal to wear the companion Archie Goodwin moddy.

The novel was sufficiently successful to spawn an Infocom game, Circuit’s Edge (1989).

Opening screen of Circuit's Edge (Infocom, 1989)

A Fire In The Sun (1989) finds Audran deeper in thrall to Friedlander Bey—comfortably installed in a wing of Friedlander’s palace, and the owner of a profitable night-club. He is also, by Friedlander’s machinations, embedded as Friedlander’s eyes and ears with the local police department. The situation is not one that either improves Audran’s self-respect or wins favour from his former friends. The plot rapidly becomes extremely complicated—Friedlander wants Audran to murder someone; Audran has another murder that he needs to avenge; he also needs to tease out the oddly complex relationship between Friedlander and a commercial rival, sort out a mystery surrounding his own parentage, and try to heal the rifts with his old friends. Effinger expands on the uses to which moddies can be put, some of which are deeply unpleasant, and leavens the narrative with dark humour. My favourite from this novel is the moment when Audran, caught up in a police emergency, pops in a moddy that will turn him into an efficient police-officer … and then has to sit through a coffee commercial inside his head before the moddy takes effect.

The Exil Kiss (1991) begins with the sentence, “It never occurred to me that I might be kidnapped.” So you know what’s going to happen next. Friedlander Bey and his now right-hand-man Audran are picked up by the police on trumped-up murder charges and (after a series of less-than-legal events) dumped in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert and left to die.

So the first half of this novel is spent in the desert, where Friendlander and Audran are rescued, after various misadventures, by a tribe of nomadic Bedu. There follow more adventures among the Bedu, and the pair eventually manage to return to their home city, to solve the murder mystery and wreak revenge, in the latter half of the book. The conclusion is oddly rushed and inconsistent, and for me the more enjoyable part of the book is Audran’s adaptation to Bedu culture, on which Effinger lavishes much detail—I think in part derived from Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959).

The two opening chapters of the planned fourth novel, Word Of Night, which were published in the themed collection Budayeen Nights, show tantalizing promise, with Effinger drawing together a number of plot elements that had been seeded into the previous novels. But sadly we’ll never know how all that would have turned out.

I enjoyed rereading these. Effinger’s unique evocation of a Muslim cyberpunk culture is skilful and always engaging—Hambly reports in her story notes to Budayeen Nights that Effinger had read a great deal about Islam, and was always careful to have his stories checked by Muslim friends. And his matter-of-fact treatment of gay and transgender characters was ahead of its time in many ways.

There are frustrations, however. The murder mysteries are rather loosely constructed, and Audran’s approach to solving them sits somewhere between haphazard and perverse. The latter problem seems to be largely deliberate, however. Here’s Hambly in her introduction to Budayeen Nights:

It amused George that many readers take Marîd at Marîd’s own evaluation of himself: cool, clever, street-smart, sharp. But in fact, George said, if you look at what Marîd actually does rather than what he says, he is in fact cowardly, not nearly as clever as he thinks he is, and has a major drug problem which he never quite gets around to addressing.

You can pick up second-hand paperback editions of the novels fairly cheaply. The original Bantam Spectra editions (shown at the head of this post) have cover art by Jim Burns and Steve & Paul Youll, much influenced by the visual style of Blade Runner. (There are, actually, no flying cars in the novels.) The current Kindle editions by Open Road Media are surprisingly expensive, and their digital edition of Budayeen Nights seems to be unavailable at present, which is a shame, because physical editions of that book are rare and expensive. Oh, and there’s also a hardback omnibus edition of the trilogy, grandly entitled The Audran Sequence, from the Science Fiction Book Club.

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