George Alec Effinger’s Thousand Deaths

 

(The following originally appeared as my Afterword to A Thousand Deaths by George Alec Effinger, edited by Marty Halpern, Golden Gryphon Press, 2007.)

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Despite popular perception, the field of science fiction is not especially rich in accurate prognostication. Oh, Jules Verne pulled off some early successes with technological prediction, nailing the nuclear submarine more than sixty years before the launching of the U.S.S. Nautilus. Since Verne’s day, the most impressive feat of SF prognostication belongs to Arthur C. Clarke, who accurately foresaw the launching of communications satellites into Earth orbit. Colonization of the moon? Our trips there have been brief rock-collecting expeditions, abandoned after just five years. Human journeys to other planets? Nope; not with this budget deficit. Time travel? Fuggedaboudit. Flying cars, robot nannies, invitations to join the Galactic Federation? Don’t hold your breath.

As a science fiction writer, George Alec Effinger had other goals in mind than being a modern-day Nostrodamus. However, with his novel The Wolves of Memory, George pulled off a truly eerie feat of prognostication. In 1981, he accurately predicted the bleakness, frustration, and futility of the final decade of his life, the accelerating loss of his capacity to work, his friends, and his ability to remain true to the best parts of himself. And he also predicted, following this series of disasters culminating in a lonely death, a posthumous triumph. George’s posthumous victory over the forces of decay, forgetfulness, and oblivion, I am delighted to announce, gathers momentum even as I write this afterward.

Sandor Courane was the first of George’s recurring characters who served as a rough alter-ego, the other being Marid Audran, protagonist of George’s popular Budayeen novels. Before George died in the spring of 2002, I hadn’t encountered Sandor much, having read only a couple of stories that featured the hapless, always doomed SF writer/editor. George had mentioned that the book which had introduced Sandor, The Wolves of Memory, was his personal favorite of all his novels. In 2004, I honored him in a small way by naming one of the characters in my second published book, Bride of the Fat White Vampire, Courane L’Enfant. But I didn’t get my hands on a copy of Wolves, by then more than twenty years out of print, until a year after that. Reading the story of Sandor Courane’s plight and progressive debilitation, I found myself stunned by a sense of recognition. In his early thirties, George had written a gorgeous, luminous, and haunting metaphor of his own fate as a middle-aged man.

By the time I met George in the fall of 1994, taking his course on Science Fiction and Fantasy World Building at the University of New Orleans, then joining the monthly writing workshop group he’d founded six years earlier, the best days of his career were already behind him. The last major book he would publish in his lifetime, the novel The Exile Kiss, had come out in 1991. When I first got to know him, he was enjoying a period of relatively good health and hopefulness that his situation would improve. His hairline had receded since he’d had his book jacket photos taken, and he had bad skin and a multitude of more minor ailments, but he also had an infectious smile, a wonderful, rich laugh, and eyes which literally sparkled with mischievous humor. George was the most naturally witty man I’ve ever met, and I’m certainly not alone in thinking so. And it’s a darn good thing he was blessed with such a robust sense of humor, because he was also one of the most unfortunate people, health-wise, I’ve ever come across. From the time he was a young man, he suffered almost without respite from a series of stomach and intestinal tumors. George loved to eat, and New Orleans is one of the world’s foremost restaurant towns, but his condition frequently made eating too painful to bear. Later in life, he also came to suffer from partial deafness, rotting teeth, hepatitis C, and drug and alcohol dependencies, these last brought on and intensified by his chronic pain. He began working full-time as a freelance writer not long after college and never had the opportunity to buy affordable health insurance. By the time he desperately needed it, both his long list of pre-existing conditions and his shaky financial status made it impossible for him to acquire it.

Living in New Orleans, poor but not poor enough to be eligible for Medicaid, George, like a hundred thousand of his neighbors in this impoverished city, found himself dependent on the tender mercies of Charity Hospital. This downtown Art Deco monolith, built during the populist administration of Governor Huey P. Long, flooded badly following Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005. In all likelihood, this enormous structure, standing some twenty stories tall and taking up an entire city block, will be imploded and may never be replaced with anything comparable. George, I am sure, would have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, he, more than most, recognized the need for such a facility. On the other hand, he hated the place with real passion and was terrified of the possibility that he would ever receive another operation there. Go back and read “Posterity” again. Disregard the time traveling antagonist, and what remains is a harrowing (and pretty accurate) depiction of an inpatient stay at Charity Hospital.

I’m sure that George’s terror of Charity Hospital played a large part in his decision in the early 1990s to have a stomach operation at Tulane University Hospital, a private facility (or it’s quite possible that this just happened to be the hospital where the ambulance dropped him off, and George was in no shape to tell them that he didn’t have insurance — if they’d have known, the Tulane administrators would’ve had George speedily transferred across the street to Charity). However his admission at Tulane came to pass, he was discharged with a gargantuan medical bill which he was in no position to pay. The hospital sued. Had they understood the chronic penury of the typical freelance science fiction writer, the lawyers wouldn’t have bothered, but possibly they bought into the commonly held myth that published novelists all splurge on three-hour lunches in renowned restaurants and spend their winters on exclusive Mediterranean islands. Discovering their error, the hospital’s lawyers then sought to lay claim to the only possession of George’s which could conceivably have any real value on the open market — his intellectual property.

This legal maneuver put George in a bind not unlike that within which TECT ensnares our friend Sandor Courane. His most successful books to that point were the three Budayeen novels, which had inspired a pioneering computer-based role-playing game that George had helped to design. In the mid-1990s, his clearest opportunity to make some decent money, and thus be able to afford to pay at least part of his hospital bill, would have been to write and sell the fourth Budayeen novel, Word of Night, and sell option rights to turn When Gravity Fails into a movie. Yet by attempting to lay claim to his intellectual property, the hospital’s lawyers closed the door on George embarking on any new projects featuring his already established characters, because George could be reasonably certain that he wouldn’t see a dime from such work.

For much of the rest of the decade, the status of George’s intellectual property hung in limbo while the case dragged on. He wrote no more novels featuring the denizens of the Budayeen, and no more stories featuring Sandor Courane. He eked out a limited income writing work-for-hire projects and creating stories for theme anthologies. Finally, late in the decade, the Sword of Damocles which had so long been hanging over his head vanished in a puff of smoke when the hospital’s legal team failed to show up at a hearing, and the judge dismissed the case. But the damage had already been done; precious time had been wasted. George didn’t have many years left to him to try to resurrect his career, and the tribulations of those years would ensure they weren’t productive ones.

In 1998, it appeared that things would turn around for George. His romance with fellow writer Barbara Hambly blossomed, and he announced to our workshop group that he and Barbara were getting married. He went to join Barbara in Los Angeles, moving away from New Orleans for the first time in twenty-five years. We heard that he enjoyed being a part of the large community of science fiction people in California, that he was writing for animated TV shows and had picked up a regular gig composing the website for his favorite daytime soap, As the World Turns. We heard he was happy. Sandor, too, finds brief happiness during his first few months of exile on Planet D, relishing his short-lived, doomed romance with Lani.

George’s happiness didn’t last. Whatever demons had burrowed beneath his skin in New Orleans went with him to Los Angeles, along with his always fragile health. He moved back to New Orleans for the final time in the summer of 2000, less than two years after he’d left. The man who moved into a small courtyard apartment in the French Quarter wasn’t much like the brilliantly witty, life-of-the-party G.A.E. we remembered. The failure of his third marriage had crumpled him up like an aluminum can tossed out onto a busy highway. He would carry the burden of his dead marriage with him for the twenty-two months he had left, dragging it in his emaciated arms like Sandor carrying Rachel’s corpse through the seemingly endless deserts of Home.

Things eventually came to a head, and George ended up spending about six months in a fee-free rehabilitation center near downtown New Orleans called Bridge House, one of only three residential facilities in town which would accept patients without insurance. George got off to a promising start, quickly becoming the leader of one of the weekend twelve-step discussion sessions. The other residents, many of them convicted criminals who had opted for drug treatment over incarceration, expressed admiration when they learned he was an award-winning author. The Bridge House administrators were impressed with his clerical and composition skills and gave him more and more responsibilities. He must’ve felt a little like Sandor Courane on Planet D, elected by his fellow inmates to bargain with TECT and search for a solution to their shared dilemma.

Our workshop members visited him regularly, and everybody remarked about how much healthier he was looking. He was eating regular meals for the first time in nearly a year, even though the meals weren’t especially appetizing. . . the cooks, all residents, simply took whatever foods came in as donations and turned them into stews, which most residents chose to eat between slices of bread. Stew sandwiches twice a day, seven days a week; not so different from the stomach-turning foods native to Planet D that George had so colorfully described.

Temporarily deprived of his laptop, he resorted to writing in longhand on legal pads, a writing method he hadn’t utilized since he’d been a teenager. During long visits with him while he sat behind a reception desk in a quiet satellite building, he returned to his old spritely, witty self, reminiscing about the dozens of wonderful writers he’d befriended over the years and his misadventures in the publishing world.

These relatively good times didn’t last, however. George’s health took a turn for the worse as his old stomach ailments began plaguing him again, forcing the Bridge House managers to frequently take him to Charity Hospital, which George hated. He also started souring on Bridge House itself. A librarian friend offered to put him up in a spare bedroom in her Metairie townhouse. He came to a few of our workshops and said he was working some on Word of Night and a new novel featuring the character Renfield from Dracula. But he started isolating himself again and falling into old, bad habits. The events of September 11, 2001 hit him particularly hard, both because he had many friends in New York City and his agent recommended that he stop work on the fourth Marid Audran book, saying that no American publisher would be interested in a novel featuring an Arab hero. George had been counting on a lucrative contract for Word of Night, and his agent’s judgement sent him spiraling back into depression.

When George’s librarian friend could no longer house him, another friend, Jack Stocker, stepped in and rented a small efficiency apartment for him in a working class neighborhood along Elysian Fields Avenue outside the Quarter. Within a few months, George discovered a reservoir of strength and hope and managed to rally. He came back to our workshop early in 2002 and presented us with a big chunk of his Renfield novel, telling us that he hadn’t felt this motivated and confident about his writing since he’d been in his mid-twenties. After many years of viewing his writing as a job, a paycheck, he was now having fun again, and the words were flowing once more, quickly and easily and powerfully. He’d finish the Renfield book in a few months, he said, and then he’d go back and tackle Word of Night again, his agent’s cautions be damned. He was writing stories for anthologies to bring in some fast money. He wanted to become a Zen master of prose, pare down his style to the equivalent of the spare brush strokes of classic Japanese landscape painting. He felt truly alive again.

So, just like Sandor Courane, George was gifted with one last period of lucidity and power, a dying luminescence. Suddenly he was eager to see friends again, meeting Jack and others for lunch during his last week. In his final conversations with them and with Barbara, he told them he was happy, that he felt his best days and his best books and stories were still ahead of him. Would that it had been so. But his body, worn out from decades of illnesses and tumors, operations and self-abuse, had other ideas. Following a late April Friday afternoon out with Jack, George said he wasn’t feeling well and went to bed early. While he was sleeping, his stomach, patched up like an ancient boiler in the guts of a tramp steamer, massively hemorrhaged. He never woke up.

George’s obituary appeared in newspapers around the world, in The New York Times, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, The London Guardian, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, daily newspaper of his birth city. His greatest fear during the years before his death, when every one of his more than twenty books had fallen out of print, was that he would be forgotten, that the waves would settle over the sunken wreck of his career as though he’d never written at all. However, as Hollywood wags have long asserted, death is a good career move. And George’s work is just too darned good to be forgotten. Marty Halpern of Golden Gryphon Press has proven a tireless advocate of George’s classic shorter pieces, introducing them to a new generation of readers in three beautifully designed collections published since George’s passing. Orb Books recently reissued new trade editions of George’s most popular novels, the Budayeen trilogy — When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss — books which never should have fallen out of print. National book columnists have taken note, honoring George by selecting the first two Golden Gryphon collections as Notable Books of the Year.

George’s works will continue to delight readers and influence other writers long after his death in a tiny apartment on Elysian Fields Avenue. As a new audience discovers his stories and novels, the bright spark which was at the core of George Alec Effinger experiences a thousand rebirths. And we, his admirers and friends, can hope that, like Sandor Courane’s diary, this book will be passed from hand to hand and will cause its readers to ponder. Perhaps, like TECT’s imperious and heartless rule, our nation’s inequitable patchwork system of health insurance will be found to deserve dismantlement. Perhaps, like at the end of “Fatal Disk Error,” a bad and outmoded system will then be replaced with something better and more humane.

I think George and Sandor would both like that.

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George Alec Effinger’s editor at Golden Gryphon Press, Marty Halpern, the man who championed the idea of bringing the best of George’s short fiction back into print, wrote a terrific three part essay on putting together the three GAE collections at Golden Gryphon.

Part One: Budayeen Nights

Part Two: George Alec Effinger Live! from Planet Earth

Part Three: A Thousand Deaths

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For a more personal account of my friendship with George Alec Effinger and my involvement in the last few years of his life, this essay, Remembering George Alec Effinger, appeared on my original website from 2003-2006.

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4 comments

  1. Nick Embaye says:

    Thank you for keeping GAE alive. I am rereading the Budayeen books for the umpteenth time, and realizing how far ahead of his time Effinger was. There is now a growing market for books in Arab settings. I wish he was still around to see it.

    • Andrew says:

      I’m glad to hear George has such a loyal reader. Try picking up the three GAE short fiction collections from Golden Gryphon. They are full of wonderful material, and they are also beautifully crafted books.

  2. A beautiful remembrance. You captured the man and the work so well.

    • Andrew says:

      Gregory, thank you so much for visiting, and thank you for your very kind comment. All the members of George’s old writing critique group miss him terribly, as do his many readers, I’m sure.

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