Locus Magazine Review

Budayeen Nights, George Alec Effinger (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-19-3, $24.95, 235pp, hc) September 2003. Cover by John Picacio.

It's cause for great regret that the late George Alec Effinger was never able to complete his cycle of novels concerning Marid Audran, commenced in the late 1980s and early 1990s with When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss; two further novels were planned, but of these only hints and fragments ever emerged. The three finished books are brilliant exercises in Levantine noir, neon-illuminated decadence and cyberpunkish reality modification co-existing seamlessly with traditional Islamic belief and discourse; the central setting is always the Budayeen, perhaps a red-light district of Cairo, perhaps not, but very certainly one of SF's most spectacularly seamy and bizarre urban quarters. Portions of Bogart's Casablanca and Effinger's own New Orleans mix with purely imaginary sights and scents to constitute a pungent, murky, unforgettable milieu; as the world of a couple of centuries hence has collapsed into countless feuding and plotting city states, atmospherically appropriate levels of intrigue are guaranteed. And so criminals and spies lurk in the drinking and gambling dens, the bordellos and the thieves' haunts, of the Budayeen; and Marid Audran, former street kid and present heir apparent to the devout crimelord Friedlander Bey, is always being inveigled, despite his drink-addled better judgement, into conspiracies and capers of a life-threatening kind. Thus the superbly realized, but narratively truncated, scenario of the novels.

Now Golden Gryphon Press has at last assembled the short stories and unfinished manuscripts belonging to the sequence into a companion volume, Budayeen Nights, the customary story notes coming from Barbara Hambly. The contents fall into two categories: tales of Marid himself, and pieces filling in more of the background to his world, offstage events and alternative perspectives on the Budayeen. The first bracket is full of the comic world-weariness and downbeat caricature that make the novels so successful: Marid is a fortunate fool, his friends no better (usually a lot worse), and his many acquaintances and enemies form a rogues' gallery not often equaled in fiction. Admittedly, "Marid Changes His Mind" is also the opening chapters of A Fire in the Sun, so there is overlap with the novels, and "Marid Throws a Party" is the inconclusive beginning of the unfinished fourth novel, Word of Night; but both are so dense with incident and humor that their nature as excerpts is barely relevant. "Marid and the Trail of Blood" is a strong story, particularly interesting for its insights into the "moddies," or personality modifying software, that make individual identity such a problematic concept in the Budayeen; "The World As We Know It," although less striking, is a tantalizing glimpse of Marid at the end of the planned five-book series arc; and "The Plastic Pasha," an unfinished look at politics back in Marid's native Maghreb, has plenty of implications. The writing is always vivid and idiosyncratic.

It's the non-Marid stories, though, that show Effinger's talents at their fuller, more varied, extent. "Schrodinger's Kitten" (winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards) is a highly accomplished analysis of quantum contingency as it affects the life of a young Arab woman hundreds of years in Marid's past; "Slow, Slow Burn" considers the interactive erotica of the Budayeen future history, and the true differentiation of the object of desire; "King of the Cyber Rifles" ingeniously sets religious and military codes of morality at odds on the battlefields of Asia; and "The City on the Sand," an impressive early novelette, catches a Western expatriate in a bitter existential snare powerfully evocative of the general ennui of Budayeen life. Such mastery of place and mood: Effinger was one of SF's finest writers; Budayeen Nights is his fitting memorial.

— Nick Gevers, Locus, September 2003


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