Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy

               Okay, the rundown is as follows. This is a sprawling, crazy work about a great white shark, homicidal robots, eco terrorists, and overstuffed with insane twists and turns. The good is that there's a rich world full of colorful characters and a very "comic book" kind of feel to the overall proceedings that works in its favor. 

                 The bad is that there is almost too much here, and definitely too much going on. That's really the only flaw with the book. Sorry to disappoint you, guys, but a) I'm the least caustic critic on the internet, and b) I actually really like this one. It's disturbing in places, but it's wholly recommendable.

                   In the end, this is a "by any means necessary" kind of book. Read it. It's a good, light read despite being four hundred pages, it's a lot of fun, and it goes by quicker than almost any other book of its type. Its worldbuilding is tight, its writing is spot-on, and more people need to know this book. So read it already. More as always below. 
"One thousand ironic prosecutions."
- Roy Cohn

               This book was my first brush with Matt Ruff. It's actually what convinced me to read Fool on the Hill, the other book that I consider to be one of the two high-water marks for Ruff. When you find a book like Sewer, Gas, and Electric, a big messy densely-written book that doesn't so much unfold as sprawl open to fill every corner of its world, you know it's worth reading. It's a twisted, beautiful, brightly-colored apocalyptic work filled with humor, references, and a cast of well-developed characters. It's the kind of book that makes me very, very sad that its author abandoned its insane futurescapes and dense stylings for slimmed-down and (in my opinion) not as well-written novels that, much to my dismay, have gained him critical and commercial success. 

            It's to be expected, though-- it's a thing that happens with a lot of artists. When they get "big" enough, or have that one runaway success to lift them out of the underground, they cling to it. Some of us doubt that we'll ever be able to top that one big vault, so we try to keep the lightning in the bottle. It's happened to actors and actresses who win that big award and then are allowed to just coast and phone in their performances. Directors who make it big when they switch from sci-fi and fantasy films to do big historical epics. Comedians who get married, have kids, and start to lose their edge. And authors who find people take notice when they abandon their crazy trappings and do conspiracy/mystery novels*I don't begrudge them their success, but when they stop being as brilliant, as ambitious, as hungry as they once were, when they hit the point they no longer have to try, they're no longer interesting to read. Matt Ruff is still writing, but after the one-two disappointment of Set This House in Order and then Bad Monkeys-- Both well-written but a far departure from all the things that made me fall in love with Ruff in the first place-- I do not care to read The Mirage to find out if he's returned to form or fallen further off. 

            But Sewer, Gas, and Electric is none of those things. It's hilarious, sharp, and skewers its targets both mercilessly and cheerfully. It's a delight to read from start to finish, never flags, and is a book that more people should definitely know about. This is SCIENCE!-fiction at its finest, and it is brilliant. 

            Sewer, Gas, and Electric tells the story of the United States in the year 2033. The world has grown by leaps and bounds technologically, most of the progress spearheaded by eccentric pacifist billionaire Harry Gant. Gant is practically an overgrown kid, building huge skyscrapers in New York and working towards his magnum opus, a new Tower of Babel. As he does this, his ex-wife Joan Fine hunts gigantic mutated creatures in the sewers of New York until her team's fateful encounter with a gigantic mutant great white shark named Meisterbrau. With her team wiped out in the ensuing battle, Joan is then tasked by her friend Lexa Thatcher to investigate the mysterious death of a corporate raider named Amberson Teaneck by his automatic servant robot. Meanwhile, a polka-dotted submarine led by eco-pirate Philo T. Dufresne and his genius partner-in-crime Morris Kazenstein sinks icebreakers and eludes a mercenary kill team sent by Gant Industries to take them out. 

And then things get weird.

            Meisterbrau spends most of the book continuing to mutate new features and mulch a surprising and unfortunate group of supporting characters. Joan and her one-armed civil war vet sidekick stumble on to a mystery involving a plague that killed off all the blacks on the planet and a mysterious dinner club in Disneyland. Philo must rein in his willful daughter Serafina and at the same time evade a deranged ex-military crew hell-bent on revenge for sinking their ship. An AI representation of Ayn Rand in a hurricane lamp tries to educate Joan on the nature of selfishness. And all of this has to do with an impending apocalyptic event and the mysterious billboard reading "997" on one of Gant's buildings. Gant, meanwhile, is oblivious that anything at all is going on, and continues building. But soon all of these people and more will be swept up in the insanity. The hard to describe, strange and densely-written insanity. 

                The biggest thing the book has going for it is its sense of humor. Matt Ruff's created a sharp satire here, taking aim equally at all of his targets. Most of all, he seems to be satirizing the social science-fiction genre. Social science fiction is a genre that believes science fiction should be used to explore social themes and ideas, usually working towards whatever message the author finds most favorable. Atlas Shrugged, to which this book owes some small debt, is definitely part of this genre, and indeed the most shining example, as it is as subtle as a brick to the back of the face. At gunpoint. But it doesn't really stop there. While big business is merely one of Sewer, Gas, and Electric's targets, it also takes aim at environmentalism, pollution, liberalism, conservativism, feminism, racism, sexism, and a whole host of other targets, and hits them dead on. And it's subtle. The book seems like a cartoonish exploration of a history that can never be, but manages to make fun of a surprising number of targets.

             Also, the world-building is immense. Ruff clearly spent some time fleshing out his world and making sure all the pieces worked together. While the reader only gets hints of things beyond the scope of the book, Ruff fills in the blanks just enough so that when he does mention a concept or something that plays into a larger part of the story, you can imagine where it goes from there and fill in the blanks. There's an amazing amount of flavor, and while everything seems a little comic-booky, it all fits into a very well-realized world with a very sturdy backbone. And it's a testament to this that each absurd turn the plot takes then fits into the overall world, making it that much sturdier. This helps the book, as it makes the larger world in which the book takes place that much more manageable. 

           And finally, Ruff has a way of characters like no one else. Despite having a cast that takes a page and a half to list, and so many dramatis personae and stories going on that he needs to have a list at the front of the book, even the mooks and the people who're there mainly for canon fodder get at least a page's introduction, their own unique voice, and a place in the story. Usually this place doesn't last as long, but they get a place for a few moments before they get utterly destroyed. That Ruff takes his time to make sure each and every one of his characters has a name, a face, and a way around the world is great, and makes the world feel real. It also makes the characters feel real. 

          But there is a problem. In all of the brilliant, dense plotting, a flaw arises. Where Ruff kept everything swirling nicely around the central chaos in his last book, Sewer, Gas, and Electric doesn't have the same focus. It's spread out. Like I said further up, it sprawls. Because it's unfocused and there's a lot going on, it's looser in places and sometimes the cracks start to show. As you can probably tell from the plot summary further up the page, there's a lot going on at once, and while it makes sense in context, try explaining the plot to anyone who hasn't even heard of the book before. Things get out of hand really fast.

           This is, however, a small problem. Sewer, Gas, and Electric is a brilliant book, one that reveals something interesting on every page. It's a fun apocalyptic novel, and the nods to real-world history and conspiracy theory scattered throughout make it all the more fun. I recommend this book. I recommend buying this book. You will never read anything like it. You may never read anything like it again. And it's worth your time and then more. 

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
Scar Night by Alan Campbell
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Complication by Isaac Adamson

*Hello to Thomas Pynchon**, whose attempt at writing a Don DeLillo novel with Bleeding Edge almost killed this blog
**You'll get that Gravity's Rainbow review eventually. If I have to pen it on my deathbed

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