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Sewer, Gas & Electric

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Sewer, Gas & Electric by Matt Ruff. I bought this in part because the author used to hang out (and for all I know still does hang out) on the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.written, back when I read the group regularly. He was one of a large cadre of people who would veer off-topic into political threads that generally annoyed me, but he was fairly reasonable about the whole deal (for a person on Usenet, at least), so I bought this book to find out what sort of thing a person like that would write.

It turns out, he’d write stuff like this:


“That’s the other member of our team,” Hartower told him. “Joan Fine.” In a conspirator’s tone: “Formerly Joan Gant.”

“Gant?”

“Ex-wife of the billionaire,” said Prohaska. “She was the chief advertising executive over at Gant Industries, comptroller of public opinion. Once upon a time.”

“Not only that,” added Hartower, “but she’s also the illegitimate test-tube daughter of Sister Ellen Fine, the renegade nun who led the Catholic Womanist Crusade back in the Oughts.”

“Womanist Crusade?”

“You know: the lesbian habit-burners who wanted the Pope’s permission to be ordained and have babies.”

“Oh,” said Eddie, who didn’t know, actually. “So if her ma was a queer nun and her husband was a billionaire, what’s she doing working in the sewers?”

“Penance.”

Not really what I would’ve expected. But fun stuff all the same.

I’m not sure there’s a name for it, but this book belongs in the same category of hyperactive satirical fiction as things like Neal Stephenson’s The Big U and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. The world described is almost indescribably daft: you’ve got a black Amish pacifist eco-pirate roaming off the US coast sinking polluting ships with kosher salami; eccentric billionaire Harry Gant, whose fantastic ability to develop and sell new neat ideas is matched only by his short attention span; mutant great white sharks roaming the sewers of New York City, and a cargo-cult Nazi submarine base under the Statue of Liberty; a 181-year-old one-armed Canadian-born Civil War veteran; the aforementioned Joan Fine, and all the backstory that goes with her; and a holographic simulacrum of Ayn Rand in a hurricane lamp. It doesn’t really make any sense, but then it’s so ridiculously inventive that it doesn’t really have to.

It’s an uneven book in many ways, but it has some wonderful set-piece bits. The scene where advertising trainees learn the difference between chemically identical brands of toothpaste is great stuff, the secret brotherhood of guys who hide all the library books containing dirty pictures is a terrific image, and the unflattering capsule description of Atlas Shrugged (“‘Pinch me if I missed a punchline somewhere,’ Joan said, ‘but this book is not intended as a spoof, correct? It’s not an incredibly understated parody?'”) is simply wonderful (in some ways, this is Atlas Shrugged in a fun-house mirror, but it wouldn’t do to push that too far). There’s a nice little tribute to The Hunt for Red October in there, too, and the Queen Elizabeth cameo is priceless.

Other bits don’t fare quite as well. There are a few plot lines that really don’t go anywhere at all, some fairly pointless scenes that drag on too long for no real purpose, and a few named characters who could’ve been left anonymous without damaging the book (had this been a runaway best-seller, I might almost expect to see an “unabridged” edition restoring dozens of pages about people who just make cameos in the copy I have…) Most annoyingly, the ending skips a whole subset of characters in the “what happened next” round-up.

All in all, though, it’s a fun read, and the good bits are very memorable. The same is also true (more or less) of his earlier Fool on the Hill, though the similarities between the books end there (Fool on the Hill is a college fantasy novel, with a parallel plot involving cats and dogs. In many ways, it’s Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin as written by the kind of people I hung out with when I was in college…). Recent reviews suggest that the same may be true of his new book– I’ll know soon, as it’s been ordered from Amazon and should be here soon…

(Originally posted on The Library of Babel.)

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About Chad Orzel