The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   29

Sewer Gas & Electric

The Public Works Trilogy

by Matt Ruff

New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997

Again with the Madcap Behavior?

Yet another madcap romp through the near future, with many weakly connected plots, characters who are mostly collections of peculiarities, an unexplained coincidence every few pages, and a vast conspiracy lurking behind it all: the natural reaction of the cultivated reader is to snort and reach for something much more astringent. I have the greatest respect for the natural reactions of the sensitive reader, but just this once they are worth inhibiting, and Sewer, Gas & Electric worth reading.

Sewer, Gas & Electric takes place, for the most part, in New York City in 2023 --- really in the Recent Future, which is just like the present, only more so. (There is no maundering about cyberspace, virtuality, or anything of that sort.) I won't give out any spoilers for the main plot-line --- not that it's so suspenseful --- other than to say it's a genocidal conspiracy involving the Disney Corporation. (I am a bit disturbed at how Ruff uses genocidal plagues as a plot device, but plagues are, for obvious reasons, hot stuff these days.) There are about half a dozen other plots swirling about the uncovering and foiling of the Conspiracy, connected by over-lapping characters and some involvement with Gant Industries; my favorite is the one about an ``alternative-environment-adapted Carcharodon carcharias,'' i.e. a great white shark in the sewers. Inevitably, there are a couple of info-dumps --- a summary of Atlas Shrugged, the Nature and History of the Conspiracy, etc.; the longest of these is in dialogue, which is a bit of relief, but Ruff isn't exactly Plato. One of the secondary characters is a simulacrum of Ayn Rand, living in a lamp, and I am very happy to report that the Objective One gets her comeuppance. (Science fiction, as opposed to a romp in the Recent Future, would not introduce full-blown AI and leave it at the level of comic relief.) This more or less sets the tone for the characters, all of whom are either utterly bizarre or played for laughs or both: the closest approach to both normality and a protagonist is Joan Fine, ``white liberal Catholic'' and former Comptroller of Public Opinion at Gant Industries, whom we meet working in the sewers, getting rid of ``alternative-environment-adapted'' animals, and whose mother was a nun who lead a Womanist Crusade.

If this seems a bit shapeless, that's because it is; I almost wish Ruff had a Message, since it might have hardened this amorphous and bouncy farce into a first-rate satire. Amorphous or not, however, the farce had me laughing out loud much, and has put Ruff on my list of people to read on sight.

450 pp.
Fiction / North America / Science Fiction
Currently in print as a hardback, US$23, ISBN 0871136414, LoC PS4568 U3615 S49 1997
19 November 1997