Sewer, Gas & Electric, Matt Ruff

Warner Aspect, 1997, 560 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60642-1

I staggered in my local SF bookstore and painstakingly made my way to the counter. “Booktender!” I rasped, knocking on the counter. “Give me an antidote to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged!” “Coming up, chief!” he said, sliding a copy of Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric on the counter.

It may be slightly insulting to write about Sewer, Gas and Electric as merely an answer to Rand’s work. But in these days where hundreds of SF books are published per year, everyone needs a hook to attract readers, and Ruff’s second novel does, among other things, offer a compelling counter-point to Ayn Rand’s most celebrated novel.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. While a holographic projection of Rand (stuck in a hurricane lamp, no less) accompanies one of our heroines throughout her adventures, Sewer, Gas and Electric is a full-course weird trip through a future wacky enough to be believable, starring a variety of fantastical characters and quirky concepts. Fans of Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, take note; giant sewer critters duel for attention with grandiose conspiracy theories in a delicious writing style that’s worth the price of the book by itself.

It’s impossible to reduce Sewer, Gas & Electric to a simple plot description, but that’s just how the book is written. There’s an industrialist named Harry Gant, building a mile-high tower in the middle of New York. There’s an oversized shark—named Meisterbrau- loose in the sewers of the city. There’s an environmental terrorist defying rampant industrialism aboard his polka-dotted yellow submarine. There’s an American Civil War veteran running around. There are black servants called “Negroes”, and no one is offended because the whole black population was wiped out years before by a sudden epidemic. (Is this a “funny background detail”? Don’t bet on it.) There’s what’s probably the funniest submarine battle ever written. There’s a rather more aggressive Queen Elizabeth II. There’s a lot of stuff in these 560 pages.

Make no mistake; it will take you some time to make your way through Sewer, Gas & Electric, if only because this is one of those novels where you’ll want to slow down in order to savor the prose and the weirdness. Ruff isn’t a professional hack content to churn out a novel per year to pay the rent; he’s a real honest-to-goodness author and as far as readers are concerned, this means jolly good fun. A conversation with two possible meanings is one of the comic highlights of the year as far as I’m concerned. (“A thousand ironic… convictions.” See P.306-307, but beware spoilers!) Oh, oh, and don’t forget the “Mr. Science” segment!

It does get less amusing after a while, though. As the plot mechanics (yes there is a plot) get rolling and more serious issues are tackled, the laugh quotient diminishes a lot. The ending isn’t as jolly as you might want, though it remains light throughout.

It’s hard to overstate the joy of reading Sewer, Gas & Electric. It’s the kind of fun novel you don’t see much and treasure forever after. You can make comparisons with Snow Crash or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but this novel is its own animal in the weird-future subgenre.

What about Ayn Rand, though? Well, she’s a feisty character all right; as one character comments even before encountering her, “Rand’s a total loon—but a fun loon” [P.261]. The novel will be highly pleasant to everyone who was amused by Rand’s works: Not only does Chapter 12 feature a terrific plot summary of Atlas Shrugged, but later on, one of the characters neatly eviscerates Rand’s philosophy in what might best be described as a no-holds barred philosophical argument spectacular.

Naturally, Gas, Sewr & Electric is a lot more fun if you’ve read Atlas Shrugged. But don’t think it’s in any way a requirement; Ruff’s novel stands on its own as a fun novel. I can’t recommend it any strongly.

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