“A Book’s Natural Fate”

effinger-small.jpgSo you’ve written a book that fits the current vogue perfectly – let’s say it’s a grimy cyberpunk novel in the mid-1980s – does that mean you’ve guaranteed long-lasting fame for yourself? Probably not. But don’t worry, a lot of your compatriots are suffering the same fate.

Oh, and I just happen to have an example at hand: George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails, a perfectly fine book in its own right, and one that happens to have come back into print in a gorgeous trade paperback. But for some reason, I started having melancholy and/or realistic thoughts about the writing life after reading it.

In some ways, When Gravity Fails is a pretty good issue of the standard cyberpunk story: a sleazy, crime-filled setting where the technology of the future gets the treatment of the streets. Effinger adds an extra wrinkle by creating a polyglot African/Arabian city, specifically a dangerous part of town named Budayeen, so there are lots of cultures clashing in a nominally Muslim city. A productive setting for a story at the very least!

The main character, one Marid Audran, is a hustler, and one of the last people on the street to refuse “moddies,” personality implants that can make you a psychopath, a lover, James Bond, or the world’s most amped-up detective. But Audran faces a killer who has no qualms about jacking up his stats – like an RPG game gone insanely real – and he might have to break his own rules and get any advantage he can, jack in any moddy that might help. Especially since there’s probably more than one killer on the loose.

All told, it’s a solid science fiction tale. Effinger wrote two novel-length sequels, A Fire in the Sun and The Exile Kiss, and the posthumous Budayeen Nights collected all related short material.

Who was Effinger? A science fiction writer with a varied output, he died in 2002 at age 55. He won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for his story, “Schrodinger’s Kitten.” I have a confused sense of Effinger’s
career: I only remember reading his humourous material when he was still alive, but he wrote some serious stuff as well that I can’t seem to reconcile – was the Budayeen series capitalizing on a trend? What would he want to be remembered for?

effinger-big.jpg That’s precisely where my mind started to wander. And I guess I was thinking more about fame than books per se. What is fame? What does it mean? All such imponderables. But also: what’s worth looking at from the past? Sure, “famous works of art,” but how did they get that fame, and what about works of art from current life? There’s always a mixture of the past and the present in culture; does what survives from the past say more about us than the past itself? No one is really writing cyberpunk any more – does When Gravity Fails automatically fade away when a newer, fresher sex-and-violence romp (like, say, Altered Carbon) comes out? It’s perhaps a bit strange to apply all this pondering about fame and such to science fiction; in its barest essence as pop culture, it’s about the pleasure of the moment, the reader turning the page, the visceral jolt. But doesn’t science fiction have ambitions beyond the pop culture moment? Maybe, maybe not!

I got the title of this article from a post called The Life Expectancies of Books by Teresa Nielsen Hayden; it’s mainly about copyright extension, but the part that stuck with me is this:

The literature taught in schools is that which has survived: a
collection of gross statistical anomalies. This is misleading. Falling
out of print is a book’s natural fate. We can belatedly train ourselves
to believe that this will happen to other people’s books. What’s hard
is for writers to believe it will happen to their own.

I’m also thinking about this line from one of the few fan sites for Effinger:

19. Why wasn’t he more famous?

It wasn’t a lack of talent. I believe he would have been more successful if he had not suffered from painful chronic illnesses.

A science fiction writer in the U.S. who has not become hugely famous (i.e, he isn’t a household word like Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein was) has two main methods of keeping his name before the science fiction public — the constant publication of new books, and frequent appearances at science fiction conventions.

Obviously this is pre-Internet; strange how it feels like a time capsule from a long lost time (actually it seems like I hear way too much about promoting yourself and your career online latey). I guess my question would be: if Effinger had gained more “success” during his lifetime, would his works somehow fall into that list of “statistical anomalies” that survive? Also: what can happen to a career after death? Effinger’s Budayeen books have all been re-released, and most of his short fiction has been collected as well. Will his works fall out of style? I don’t know the answers to these questions; Nielsen Hayden supplies lots of examples to support her thesis that fading away is the natural fate of a book. Maybe I still want to believe that the proverbial hard-work-and-sacrifice can prevent such a process.


James Schellenberg is science fiction editor.

2 replies »

  1. it’s interesting to me how often something that doesn’t “fit the current vogue” is what endures. victorians were into narrative poetry; novels were disreputable and kinda for women. moby dick was such a commercial and critical failure that melville turned almost exclusively to poetry. in less durable media like comics and film, a work’s survival has a lot to do with its actual survival. and then they’re still subject to the current vogue. most fans did not like grant morrison’s doom patrol at the time. jim jarmusch’s western dead man had a bad reception and now it’s a classic. quality isn’t enough and hard to discern.


  2. “Falling out of print is a book’s natural fate…”
    Exactly. It’s hard to describe to someone who has never worked in (or at least delved deeply into) the book business. But it’s true.
    It’s also hard to explain why “But it was such a good book!” isn’t reason enough to keep it in print. Many good books – great books, even – fail. Some good books succeed. The same is true for bad books; some succeed, some fail. If it was possible to predict, there would only ever be bestsellers.


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