Ever read a book just because of how crazy the basic description for it sounds? I have. Many times. Sadly, a book with an amusing title often has the title as the best part about the book.
The back of the novel Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy says the book contains, among other things, a new Tower of Babel, a sub built by Howard Hughes, a hurricane lamp programmed with the personality of Ayn Rand, and a killer shark named Meisterbrau who lives in the sewers of New York City. Set in the year 2023, I can assure you that the book does indeed contain all those things. Originally published in 1996, author Matt Ruff has done a lot better with more subsequent novels like The Mirage and Lovecraft Country. How was this particular book? Review and some minor SPOILERS after the cut.
Ruff’s works, in my experience, are often highly ambitious works with unique settings and characters that always seem to rush an ending that works out, perhaps too well for all involved. I’ve seen that in the two other books of his I have read. The Mirage, set in a world where, essentially, the Arab states are a single, secular superpower of a nation while the Americas are made up of poor, squabbling nations full of fundamentalist Christians, threw out curve late in the book and ended it in a rather mysterious way, all told. Lovecraft Country used a family of African Americans living in 1950s Chicago to explore the dual horrors of racism and the sort of thing H.P. Lovecraft wrote about. That one had a somewhat pat ending, all told.
So, what’s going on with Sewer, Gas, and Electric, which, despite the title, is not a trilogy at all, but a single work?
Well, in the year 2023, billionaire Harry Gant is working to build a new Tower of Babel. He loves building really tall buildings despite being afraid of heights. Plans are afoot to put the building into Manhattan, and he thinks that’s just neat.
That’s more or less how Harry does everything. He has an idea he thinks is neat and just does it. Unbending optimism is his default characteristic. While he has a few ruthless employees on his payroll, he himself doesn’t display that sort of personality.
Meanwhile, Harry’s ex-wife Joan Fine works for the sewer department, clearing wild animals out of the sewers. She doesn’t hate Harry.
There’s also eco-terrorist Philo Dufrense. He rides around in the aforementioned sub built by Howard Hughes, but he believes in non-violent terrorism where he’s more inclined to embarrass polluters before sinking their ships. Even though he does target Harry’s ships, he also doesn’t hate Harry.
See, nobody hates Harry. He’s harmless. Well, Meisterbrau the mutant great white shark might, but he hates everybody from the looks of things.
But when a corporate raider looking to take Harry’s company from him dies under mysterious circumstances, the chief suspect is the man’s Electric Servant. Those are Harry’s best-selling machines, humanoid robots that act as laborers for all manner of people. Most of them look human, and most of the ones that look human look somewhat like black people.
Here’s where I thought Ruff had screwed up. Early on, the reader learns that there are hardly any black people of African descent left on Earth after a mysterious plague that may have started in Idaho wiped them all out in a matter of days, aside from a relative handful who had green eyes. That struck me as really wrong on as I was reading. I know from works like Lovecraft Country that Ruff is no racist, but the racial implications of such an idea, especially early in the book when much of what was happening read as more satirical futuristic craziness than anything else, came across as way wrong. Philo and his adult daughter are among the survivors of the plague, which also caused those who died to completely disintegrate shortly after death. This is a book where Joan is the daughter of a lesbian nun activist and whose closest friend and associate is a one-armed 181 year old woman who somehow fought for both sides in the Civil War. The Ayn Rand thing is true. There’s a car programmed to talk like Abbie Hoffman. What gives?
Well, patience won out. As Joan and Kite (the Civil War vet) uncover more and more of the mystery, while getting into philosophical arguments with Ayn Rand (and winning a few, my favorite part of the book…I really hated Atlas Shrugged), there comes a point around halfway through where the plague that killed a whole race of people is explained, and the novel shifts from whatever it was before to a much more serious work while still retaining the weird comedic elements. This is a novel that isn’t afraid to toss in a British submarine crewed entirely by women two thirds of the way through, with a full history of the captain and how she got the job, or have Walter Cronkite revealed to be a man born without legs who now controls the CNN blimp fleet. Eccentric weirdoes are all over, but once the plague was explained, I found the novel a lot more fun.
Brimming over with weirdness, the book does have the patented Ruff ending, but the chaos of having all the different plots lines converge and stop the master plan of the novel’s villain seemed to work better due to the chaos that came before it. Not a perfect book by any means, but so far probably my favorite of Ruff’s if for no other reason than the overall improvement of the book as it went. I’m giving it nine out of ten urban camper scouts.