By DOUG SIMPSON, Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - George Alec Effinger, a prize-winning science fiction author who laced his novels and stories with dark humor, has died. He was 55.

Effinger, an alcoholic with recurring health problems, died Friday night at his home in New Orleans, said author Barbara Hambly, his former wife. The cause of death has not been determined.

Effinger (pictured, right) wrote nine novels, including thrillers and mysteries, and six short story collections. He enjoyed early success with his first novel, "What Entropy Means to Me," in 1972, and with a series of "cyberpunk" novels in the 1980s, including "When Gravity Fails."

"Schrodinger's Kitten" won the Nebula prize in 1988 and the Hugo award in 1989 for best novelette.

"He was a golden child, one of those natural talents," said Harlon Ellison, a science fiction author and close friend. "His first book was a killer, it blew everybody away in the genre. They just sat back and waited for more from him."

Effinger was born in Cleveland and grew up poor, the son of a U.S. Navy veteran. His mother was a prostitute, Ellison said.

Effinger earned a scholarship to Yale University, where he went in the 1960s intending to become a doctor. He dropped out twice and never received a degree.

He moved to the East Village in New York City and met science fiction writer Damon Knight, who would become his mentor. He began publishing stories in magazines, then had a hit with his first book.

Effinger had a knack for picking up a variety of styles and genres and making them his own, Ellison said.

"George was a genre unto himself. They called him a fabulist, but he could write the New Wave or he could write pure fantasy or mystery," Ellison said.

Effinger was perhaps best known for a series of stories featuring Maureen Birnbaum, a shopping-crazy teen dropped into settings and situations that parody science fiction. The stories were collected in 1993 in "Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordperson."

"He wrote the most engaging humor you could want to read," Ellison said. "That was the horrible thing about his illness: He lost his sense of humor. He was so down, all he could do is complain about his illnesses. It broke everybody's heart."

Sickness dogged him for much of his life, particularly the past 15 years, friends said. Tumors grew in his intestines and he underwent numerous operations to have them removed. Drink, plus overuse of prescription drugs, exacerbated his illness, Hambly said.

"His brilliance was always offset by his bad health," said Hambly, his third wife. "He would be able to work for a period of a couple years, then he would develop tumors again. Some of his novels were written in hospitals while he was hooked up to machines."

Memorial arrangements have not been set, Hambly said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)