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The Public Works Trilogy

Matt Ruff
Atlantic Monthly Press, 447 pages

A review by Leon Olszewski

In the year 2023, billionaire Harry Gant likes to construct tall buildings. His latest is to rise over a mile high, in Brooklyn. The source of much of his wealth comes from the sales of the Gant Automatic Servant. One of these has apparently killed a Wall Street take-over artist who was investigating Gant Industries. Joan Fine, Harry's ex-wife, is hired to solve the murder -- though not by Harry.

Thus begins a wild romp set twenty-six years from now. We meet an outrageous cast of characters -- from Philo Dufresne, a black man raised by the Amish and now an eco-terrorist (who refuses to kill anyone) in the submarine Yabba-Dabba-Doo; to Kite Edmonds, a 181-year-old, one-armed veteran of the American Civil War. Add in a hurricane lamp that contains the holographic image and personality of Ayn Rand, a cybernetic beaver, a mutant great white shark living in the sewers of New York, and you get a tale unlike nearly anything written in the past twenty years.

Sewer, Gas & Electric can be read either as a light-hearted SF story, or as satire. There are great similarities both to Kurt Vonnegut and to Jonathon Swift's Gulliver Travels (not as we read it today, but as it was not doubt read soon after it was written). Some people will see similarities to Neal Stephenson. A lot of the humor is slapstick, but it lampoons society, making it more akin to the Marx brothers than the Three Stooges. Matt Ruff takes on Catholicism, feminism, ethnicism, ecology, political correctness (he calls it P.U. -- "philosophically untenable"), and Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Fortunately, the reader does not have to read the 1084-page, 8-point tome of Atlas Shrugged to understand the story. Matt provides a short synopsis covering the book's major themes, just so you get the point.

One of the great features of the story is the little asides that abound throughout, putting the future world (and ours) in place. They include:
Portable Televisions - "Automatic Servants with cable-ready, high definition monitor screens in place of heads - might seem a macabre notion at first, the sort of thing Rene Magritte would have come up with if he worked for Zenith."
The continued popularity of Top Ten lists - one of the towns is described as "one of the ten most technologically disadvantaged places in the continental U.S. (as noted on the front page of USA Today's Life section)."
Ambush Journalism - the destruction of the Empire State Buildingis described by "celebrated disaster chronicler, Tad Winston Peller."

These pastiches capture the bits and pieces, the absurdities of life. And it helps keep you guessing about which of them will return later, either as a plot element or an integral piece in a larger patchwork.

The major problem with the book is the section in which the author debates the philosophy of Ayn Rand, done via dialogues between Joan Fine and the holographic Rand. I think that Matt Ruff was trying to have the debate he never had during his philosophy courses. It slowed the pace of the story, and dragged on longer than it should have.

This book is not for everyone, particularly those who dislike humor directed at themselves. Readers that can take a joke will have a fun time.

Copyright © 1997 by Leon Olszewski

Leon Olszewski grew up in southern Illinois and attended the University of Illinois. He has never been in the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Sewer, Gas & Electric
Matt Ruff
Matt Ruff's first book was Fool on the Hill. He lives in Philadelphia.
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