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Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy

By Matt Ruff 

29 Sep, 2014


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A note about the title: this book is the whole of the Public Works Trilogy. As much fun as it would be to encourage you to button hole the author to demand the next two volumes, Sewer, Gas and Electric is a standalone novel with a misleading subtitle. 

I remembered liking 1997’s satirical Sewer, Gas & Electric almost 20 years ago so I was looking forward to rereading it. That may sound ominous and it should. I suspect the issue is not the book so much as it is me but unfortunately I seem to be stuck with being me 24/7.

Ruff is one of those authors where I know exactly when and how I discovered him. About 1990, Genie Lyon was extremely keen on Ruff’s Fool on the Hill — published when he was 23! — and she insisted I read it. She was also quite keen on The Story of My Life but I doubt anyone will be paying me to reread Jay McInerney any time soon. 

The book is set in 2023 but not the 2023 we will soon reach. While this world’s New York lost a major landmark to an airplane, the landmark was the Empire State Building, not the Twin Towers (which get mentioned in passing), and it was an accident like the 1945 incident rather than an act of terrorism. 

There was a grand calamity that completely reshaped the world and it was deliberate but it did not involve something as picayune as killing a couple of thousand New Yorkers. In the early part of the 21st century every single black person on the planet – save those who had green eyes — sickened and died before softly collapsing into dust-like remnants that blew away on the wind. 

You may ask how exactly was it that only black people – a category that is highly problematic in terms of biology and whose edges are nothing like well defined – died? And what’s up with the green eyes?” That turns out to be a significant question. 

One might like to think this kind of catastrophe would trigger philosophical introspection over the loss of a good part of humanity but what actually happened is it triggered a mildly nuclear war for the spoils of Africa, the so-called War for Free Trade in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are a fair number of veterans of that war running around. 

At about the same time, Gand Industries marketed the Gant Automatic Servant, an Asimovian sort of humaniform robot, and much to Harry Gant’s surprise, the most popular model is the AS204, the dark-skinned model because apparently the way a lot of white Americans to commemorate the legions of the dead is with Electric Negro robots that “[act] like an army of Sidney Poitiers and Hattie McDaniels […].”

Harry Gant, the charismatic eccentric who heads up Gant Industries, is aware that many aspects of the Electric Negro are problematic and when he can he takes such steps to deal with those aspects as will not interfere with sales (because after all, he didn’t get to be a billionaire by not selling things to people).

Although it takes the book a fair while for its plot to narrow down on it, the central questions of the book are: was the African Pandemic natural and if it wasn’t, who engineered it and why? Answering those questions falls to activist Joan Fine, assisted by such figures as the simulated mind of Ayn Rand, her ex-husband Harry and a large cast of characters not least of whom are the crew of the pirate sub Yabba-Dabba-Do.

I used to like this but this time around I kept getting kicked out of the story by the whole nearly total extermination of black people and by the Electric Negros. It’s very clear the author opposes genocide and killing over a billion people out of what turns out to be total sociopathy is an undisputed marker of being the villain but for some reason I’ve mostly lost the capacity to laugh at something if part of it depends on obliterating more than a continent’s worth of people. I can tell you losing that ability was a real set-back for my carefree frolic through SF, a genre traditionally pretty keen on shoveling people into mass graves.

The purpose of the Electric Negros was to critique various stereotypes – I know that because the author once said part of what I was doing with the Electric Negroes was making fun of stereotyped media portrayals of African-Americans” — but that part of the book didn’t work for me. Despite knowing they were created as racist caricatures by the grand villain of the book, I cringed every time ENs like Amos and Andy came on stage. 

Speaking of that interview, I wish the author had spent as much time getting the details of Queen Elizabeth II right as he did polishing the description of Morris Kazenstein’s dreidel. 

I no longer recall the context that provoked the irritated Mennonites!” in my notes. I do remember thinking I will remember what that means, no need for page numbers.” 

Ruff populates his 2023 with a wild variety of absurd, often eccentric but not unbelievable characters, plants them in a world that has taken some bizarre turns and assigns them the task of unraveling the secret history that led to their circumstances. It’s very easy for satire to be spiteful but for the most part the characters are treated sympathetically, even affectionately by the author. Ayn Rand’s simulated mind in particular comes to mind; it would have been trivial to make her an unsympathetic caricature but Ruff’s treatment is affectionate and as respectful as one could be, given the subject matter. Rand even gets a moment of heroism. 

Over the years, people have noticed parallels between this book and Wilson and Shea’s now quite venerable Illuminatus trilogy. As with the parallels between Shadow of Earth & Kindred, Fountains of Paradise & Web Between the Worlds and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms & Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince, they arose without any intention on the authors’ parts. That said, people who like one might to check out the other although I will warn you right now the Illuminatus trilogy is very, very, very 1970s. For that matter, I expect a lot of people who enjoy Ruff’s books would also enjoy the works of the late John Sladek and of course the reverse is true; Sladek fans should consider Ruff. 

Sewer, Gas and Electric is available from a variety of sources in a variety of formats.