When hard luck science fiction author George Alec Effinger died last year at age 55, he hadn’t published a new book in nine years.
But the Cleveland native, who revived his career with a remarkable series of hardboiled science-fiction detective novels, is back in the public eye. This month, Golden Gryphon Press has published an important new collection of Effinger stories, Budayeen Nights. Only one story was published in a previous Effinger book, and two of the nine stories were previously unpublished. The book is a "must have" for Effinger fans, says author Barbara Hambly, Effinger’s ex-wife, who wrote the foreword and story introductions.
Effinger’s most popular books were his three Budayeen novels, starring detective [Maríd] Audran in the futuristic Muslim city of Budayeen, a place inspired by the French Quarter of New Orleans, where Effinger lived the last three decades of his life. The publication in 1987 of the first novel in the series, When Gravity Fails, revived a career that some thought had not lived up to Effinger’s early promise.
Born in Cleveland in 1947, Effinger burst into the field in 1972 with a novel, What Entropy Means to Me, which was nominated for a Nebula Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America. He also attracted attention for his witty short stories, collected in the anthologies Mixed Feelings, Irrational Numbers and Dirty Tricks.
Even in his earliest stories (some written under the pen name Susan Doenim), Effinger distinguished himself by avoiding sci-fi clichés. His style was humorous and direct, with surreal touches and funny titles like "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything" and "Mars Needs Beatniks."
Chronic illness — Effinger suffered from painful intestinal ulcers — and persistent worries about money slowed his career. At one point, Effinger was forced to write novelizations of Planet of the Apes scripts to pay his medical bills. Some of the books that followed What Entropy Means to Me read as though they were hastily written. Hambly describes Effinger’s second book, Relatives, as a "pay-the-medical-bills book."
All that changed with When Gravity Fails, and the two sequels, A Fire in the Sun and The Exile Kiss. The trilogy won both critical and popular acclaim and made Effinger a major force in the science fiction world.
Budayeen Nights contains all the stories set in Budayeen, including "Shroedinger’s Kitten," in which a young girl dreams of possible quantum futures, all focused on her encounter with a would-be rapist. The story won Effinger his only Hugo Award (science fiction’s top prize).
Growing up in Cleveland made Effinger one of science fiction’s most avid sports fans. He published a collection of science-fiction sports stories, Idle Pleasures. In "Lydectes: On the Nature of Sport," a group of philosophers employ a Socratic dialogue to determine that baseball is the sport most beloved of the gods.
"George was a loyal fan of the Tribe ’til the day he died," Hambly recalls. "He said that the last good year they had he was just old enough to be imprinted with true loyalty, and for years he hung on, hoping they'd be good again. He’d follow the Indians through every season, cheering and hoping, and getting furious when they'd wash out."
While watching the Indians play a World Series game against the Atlanta Braves, Effinger became so upset he had to leave the room. "He couldn’t bear to see them knocked out," Hambly recalls. "Which they were, alas."
Effinger’s Cleveland ties often appeared in his works. Effinger’s grandfather, also named George Effinger, was a Cleveland police officer killed in the line of duty in the 1920s. Effinger adapted his grandfather’s death for one of the subplots in A Fire in the Sun.
"He lived in New York City for seven years and in New Orleans for nearly 30," Hambly says, "but if you asked what his hometown was, he’d say, ‘Cleveland.’ It appears in many of his stories, not always favorably. In one of his novels the hero gets killed and goes to Purgatory, and Purgatory turns out to be being 12 years old and a crossing guard outside an elementary school in Cleveland in the middle of winter — forever. I guess that experience really made an impression on him."
After reviving his career with the Budayeen books, Effinger largely fell silent. His last published book was the 1993 Maureen Birnbaum: Barbarian Swordsperson, a collection of short stories that used a college coed, Muffy Birnbaum, to satirize familiar fantasy settings. During the last 12 years of his life, Effinger had trouble working. Drugs, chronic pain, alcohol and depression impaired his ability to focus on his writing.
Yet just before he died on April 27, 2002, his friends believed he had turned his life around. "George had finally worked to overcome these problems and began writing again," says the book’s editor, Marty Halpern. "He provided me with the files for seven of the nine stories contained in this collection. The last story, ‘The Plastic Pasha,’ is merely a fragment — the first 2000 or so words of a new story George was writing exclusively for the collection. [Hambly] found the story fragment on his computer after his death."
Halpern is also compiling a collection of Effinger’s selected stories, George Alec Effinger Live! From Planet Earth, scheduled for publication in late 2004 or early 2005. Three more collections of Effinger’s stories are planned.
Hambly and Halpern hope the new collections will earn Effinger the wider readership his work deserves, though there is sadness that the new books come after his death. Says Halpern, "The fact that George was in a positive mental and physical space and writing again, well — his death thus came as a complete shock to all of us."
— Tom Jackson, Cleveland Free Times, September 29, 2003