When Gravity Fails was published near the beginning of what came to be called the cyberpunk movement in science fiction. This was in 1986, two years after William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) appeared; that book is generally credited with starting the subgenre. George Alec Effinger was already writing When Gravity Fails when Neuromancer appeared, and he was more influenced by the works of Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick.
One of Effinger’s major contributions to cyberpunk is his concept of “moddies” and “daddies,” in which technology is used to modify human behavior and performance, as an alternative to having humans plug themselves directly into the technology. Effinger’s universe, which is often called “hard-boiled” and which owes a debt to writers such as Raymond Chandler, is also an interesting departure from the more surreal worlds of Neuromancer and other cyberpunk novels.
When Gravity Fails was written some fifteen years into Effinger’s career, after he had already published nearly twenty books. This may be why the book and its sequels, A Fire in the Sun (1989) and The Exile Kiss (1991), show such a sustained effort and consistency throughout. In each sequel Marîd evolves further away from a street hustler into a man of wealth, importance, and moral strength. The sequels also chart a steady progression in Marîd’s relationship with Friedlander Bey, who turns out, in A Fire in the Sun, to be Marîd’s great-grandfather. Effinger planned for five books in the completed series.
When Gravity Fails also influenced Effinger’s award-winning (Hugo and Nebula) novelette “Schrödinger’s Kitten,” which appeared in Omni magazine in 1988. This tale is also set in the Budayeen, though earlier in time than When Gravity Fails. It likely would have been a different story without the novel as predecessor.
The book marks one of the few times that a complex, accurate, and believable Muslim world has been constructed as a backdrop for a science-fiction novel. Although the Budayeen exists in an unnamed Muslim city, it is modeled closely on the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. Parts of the book are based on an actual murder that occurred in New Orleans.