"Blade Runner meets Casablanca written by Nelson Algren" would be the Hollywood pitch for Budayeen Nights, a collection of stories by the late George Alec Effinger. But there's much more to these hard-boiled, lemon-scented tales.
Recently re-released by Golden Gryphon Press as a trade paperback, Budayeen Nights is a vivid collection of nine tales set in the futuristic Middle Eastern city Effinger created for the Marîd Audran novels he penned from 1987 to 1991. Marîd is hands down one of my favorite science fiction anti-heroes, but more on that brain-blazed bastard later. Richard K. Morgan's writing often captures a similar noir sensibility, but his gritty underworlds can't quite match the Budayeen. Effinger really put the Punk in Cyberpunk. Virtual realities and mirrorshades are swell, but you only get a fully realized urban hellhole from a writer who's really lived one.
The Budayeen is a neighborhood in an unnamed city somewhere in the Levant of the 23rd Century CE. This is a future where the nations of the West and the Far East have torn themselves apart into myriad tiny squabbling fiefdoms leaving the Muslim world supreme. Thronging with thieves, prostitutes, lunatics and hustlers of every stripe, the Budayeen is a thinly disguised version of New Orleans' French Quarter, and some of it's seedier denizens who Effinger knew and loved. The residents of the Budayeen are the cast-off or disaffected from across the globe. Whether a member of the Transgender Continuum, an artist desperate for a muse, or just dedicated to an extralegal career path; they all find an uneasy oasis amidst the stringent demands of Islamic culture. There are no mosques in this anything-for a-buck neighborhood, but plenty of bars and graveyards that never lack for custom, "Business is business, and action is action", is the oft-repeated mantra here. In a swirl of drugs, crime, and decadence, people can live as they choose - but probably not as long as they'd like.
Along with his cultural twist to the film-noir setting, Effinger had a unique take on computer/brain interfaces that makes these stories stand out from (and age better than) the many offerings of the Cyberpunk style of the 1980's. Virtually every aspect of life in this dystopia is affected by the ubiquitous chip-in brain augmentations. Barbara Hambly describes the origin in her introduction to the story "Marîd Changes His Mind":
The technology itself, [George] said, had been designed for treatment of neurological damage. But like all technology, it was immediately seized upon and exploited by the entertainment and pornography industries so that its original intent was almost forgotten.
With an add-on or "daddy" plugged into the back of your skull, you temporarily can possess any knowledge. Need to speak perfect English or Bantu for that big meeting, repair a sewage treatment plant, or bone up on Transoxanian tax codes? No problem. There are even special daddies that turn off your body's need to eat or sleep. The more comphensive "moddys" go in the anterior implant plug at the top of your head. With one of these you can suddenly be a fearless super-soldier or plow through hours of filing and data entry without becoming bored. Total personality moddies transform you into your favorite fictional character. No surprise that the porno moddy industry is enormous. Recordings of superstar Honey Pílar have been voraciously enjoyed by over five billion fans. Moddy addiction begs the question: are these people even whole individuals anymore, or just frameworks for elaborate scripts to run on?
I was glad of the inclusion of Effinger's Hugo, Nebula, and Seiun winning "Schrödinger's Kitten," even though this opening story in Budayeen Nights stands apart from the rest of the collection in tone and setting. It portrays a Muslim woman's very personal relationship with quantum mechanics, faith, and history. If her fate is truly fixed by the will of Allah, what does that mean to He who is All-Wise and All-Knowing? Although still brutally violent, this odd and compact little story will open the mind to interesting thoughts.
The most of other stories deal more with Marîd Audran and the Tilt-a-Whirl filled with broken glass that is his world. Marîd starts out a small-time street punk with delusions of adequacy, a pill-popping coward and pansexual libertine. Vain and cocky, he thinks of himself as a rugged individualist and unwilling Defender of the Downtrodden. He's constantly thrust into situations of ever-increasing responsibility and danger by Friedlander Bey, who rules the Budayeen by that whole iron fist/velvet glove method. The two-hundred year old crime lord Bey is both an avuncular mentor and unforgiving master. He effortlessly justifies his vast empire of influence and finance with the teachings of the Prophet, may Allah's blessing be upon him and peace. Bey does not suffer Marîd's moral lapses lightly, and takes pains to enlighten him.
Against all his better instincts, Marîd must become - if not a hero, then less of a screw-up. If you haven't already, I strongly suggest reading Marîd's exploits in the three kick-ass novels When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss. Look for the recent trade paperbacks from Tor/Orbit with the covers by Howard Grossman and gorgeous illustrations by Craig Mullins.
Effinger's original dialouge really blows me away. The hard-boiled action crackles with language inspired by the noble Qur'an and the poetry of Omar Khayyam. The meticulous research of every detail Muslim culture weaves seamlessly with fully realized portraits from the mean streets. Tough-as-nails corrupt cops and transgender hookers conduct their business with all the formalized flourishes of Arabic ettiqute. Like Turkish coffee, it fills the atmosphere with a rich complexity and leaves you more than a little wired.
Two more Marîd Audran novels were planned and tantalizing fragments of both are in the Budayeen Nights collection. Of course, we can only wonder what might have been. George Alec Effinger died in his beloved New Orleans in 2002, impoverished after many years of painful health problems. In her forward and story introductions, Hambly, who was briefly married to Effinger, rather harshly describes some of the flaws and agonies that plagued a smart, decent and all too mortal man. He went to some very dark and strange places, and met a lots of interesting people there. These encounters fueled the creation of the Budayeen and the weird, dangerous and very human beings who still live and breath in these pages. Go ahead, they won't bite. Unless you pay for it.
Grey_Area is known among the robots as Christopher Hsiang. He means you no harm - he's just here for the books.