Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Sewer, Gas & Electric

The Public Works Trilogy

by Matt Ruff

“Ruff is a protean talent. . . . Very much in the absurdist tradition of Pynchon, Heller, Robbins, and Vonnegut, this is a mad romp through a future that Ruff admits is the present in drag. . . . [Ruff] might just be the fellow whom American literature’s been seeking for a long time.”
The Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 464
  • Publication Date October 18, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4155-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $14.95
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9845-7
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

The exuberant follow-up to Matt Ruff’s cult classic and critically acclaimed debut Fool on the Hill, Sewer, Gas & Electric is “a post-millennial spectacular–dizzyingly readable”
(Thomas Pynchon)


The year is 2023. High above Manhattan, human and android steelworkers are constructing a new Tower of Babel for billionaire Harry Gant. In the streets below, a Wall Street takeover artist has been murdered, and Gant’s crusading ex-wife has been hired to find out why. Accompanying her is Ayn Rand, resurrected from the dead and bottled in a hurricane lamp to serve as an unwilling assistant. Other characters in this extraordinary novel include submarine ecoterrorist Philo Dufrense; a Volkswagen Beetle possessed by the spirit of Abbie Hoffman; and Meisterbrau, a mutant great white shark running loose in the sewers beneath Times Square–all of whom, and many more besides, are caught up in a vast conspiracy involving Walt Disney, J. Edgar Hoover, and a mob of homicidal robots.

Tags Literary

Praise

“Ruff is a protean talent. . . . Very much in the absurdist tradition of Pynchon, Heller, Robbins, and Vonnegut, this is a mad romp through a future that Ruff admits is the present in drag. . . . [Ruff] might just be the fellow whom American literature’s been seeking for a long time.” –The Washington Post

“A dizzying rampage . . . will leave readers gasping for breath, mainly from laughter.”
The San Francisco Chronicle

“In common with Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don DiLillo, and Mark Leyner . . . Ruff has joined the small ranks of contemporary fiction writers who matter.”
Hackensack Sunday Record

‘superb . . . up-to-the-second example of SF’s ability to envision futures that are self-consistently, believably, meaningfully, lovingly, insane.”
Asimov’s Science fiction Magazine

“A careening riot to read . . . Ruff’s second novel can only enhance his reputation as a fantasy writer with imagination to burn.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Told with breezy good humor, this exuberantly silly tale will find an audience among admirers of Steve Erickson and David Foster Wallace.

” –Publishers Weekly

“A post-millennial spectacular–dizzyingly readable.” –Thomas Pynchon

” A turbocharged neo-Dickensian hot rod [with] plenty of intellectual horsepower.”
–Neal Stephenson

“A comic writer and Information Age social satirist of the first order, Matt Ruff has one of the most fertile imaginations you’ll come across.” –Amazon.com, which names this book
one of the Top Ten SF / Fantasy novels of 1997

Excerpt

1

Alligators, small boys and at least one horse have accidentally swum in the sewers of New York. The boys and the horse seem not to have enjoyed the experience, but the alligators throve on it.
–Robert Daley, The World Beneath the City

A Man in a High Place Alone

No one could say he hadn’t been warned.
The observation eyrie pricked the dome of the sky some twenty-six hundred and seventy feet above the city’s streets–half a mile up, with yardage to spare. The eyrie was not open to the public. Most visitors to the Gant Phoenix were restricted to the Prometheus Deck on the 205th floor, itself a loftier vantage point than that offered to tourists anywhere else in the world, even at the twenty-three-hundred-foot Gant Minaret in Atlanta.

A chosen few friends, business associates, and politicians were allowed to climb still higher–on days when the weather was deemed agreeable and not likely to carry anyone away with a sudden hurricane gust–out onto the 208th-floor terrace, there to breathe for free the hazy, rarefied air that sold at $7.50 a liter bottle in the Phoenix Souvenir Shop. But only Harry Gant himself had ever been permitted to make the final ascent, another three hundred feet up a utility ladder enclosed within the Phoenix’s mooring-mast pinnacle, through the trapdoor at the top, and so at last into the great glass globe that was Gant’s Eyrie, the highest point on the tallest structure ever erected by human beings in the history of the world.
“Questionable,” his comptroller of public opinion had said years ago, when he’d first told her his idea for the eyrie. ‘definitely questionable from a media standpoint, you keeping it to yourself that way.”
“Why questionable?” They’d both been a little drunk at the time, and her tone was more one of bemusement than of true caution, but wine and lightheartedness actually made Gant more attentive.
“Think biblical allusion, Harry. You’re practically begging some columnist or TV commentator to take a cheap shot at you.”
“How so?”
“Just think about it: a powerful figure standing in a high place, with all the world laid out below him . . .”
“Oh,” he said, “that. But now wait a minute, I seem to recall there were two powerful fellows up in the high place in that story, so maybe–”
“No one’s going to compare you to Jesus, Harry.”
“And why not?”
“Because Jesus didn’t want any of the things he could see from up there, and you’ll want plenty of them. Five minutes after you first get up in your little perch you’ll have thought of three new product lines to invest in–all wildly impractical, all somehow threatening to the environment or the public welfare, and all ultimately profitable, at least until the lawsuits are settled. Another five minutes and you’ll be scouting around for a site for your next building, which you’ll probably want to make twice as tall as this one. And five minutes after that you’ll probably throw up, because you know as well as I do that you don’t like heights.”
It was true: he didn’t like heights. Strange admission from a man who owned two and a half superskyscrapers and a picket fence of lesser towers, but there you had it. His aversion to air travel was legendary: preferring to go by train if it were necessary to go at all, he’d built a web of Lightning Transit lines linking a hundred cities, almost single-handedly bringing about the twenty-first-century American renaissance in rail. At the same time, Gant Industries had brought virtual-reality teleconferencing to a level where he could now attend simultaneous board meetings in Singapore, Prague, Tokyo, and Caracas without ever leaving the terra firma of Manhattan.
Not even the human-made canyons and peaks of his home city, symbols as they were of everything he held most dear, could counter his basic acrophobia. Gazing northwest across the skyscape at the gaudy spires of Trump’s Riverside Arcadia, or closer in at the Chrysler Building (whose piddling seventy-seven stories he held title to), or south at the twin giants overlooking the Battery, whatever emotions Harry Gant might have felt did not include a desire to rush over and catch the first elevator to the top.
But the Phoenix was different. The Phoenix was his–not just his property but his creation, his building, the tallest building in the history of the world. Standing at its zenith (or atop the Minaret in Atlanta, the former tallest building in the history of the world, though he didn’t visit there very often anymore), his whole perception seemed transformed somehow, as if what held him up was not the crude geometry of concrete and steel but the force of his own will, a force that could not be shaken.
Well.
To be completely honest, his comptroller’s jest about throwing up had almost come true, but only almost. The Gant Phoenix had officially opened in June of 2015, a month marked by some of the fiercest thunderstorms to strike the Eastern Seaboard in over a century. While doomcriers spoke ominously of degenerating world weather patterns, Gant invited the city’s leading lights to come on up to the Prometheus Deck one afternoon and “watch the free fireworks.” A battery of motion-dampers incorporated into the building’s superstructure helped neutralize its sway in the wind; the victory punch still sloshed around in its bowl a little, but after a trip past the buffet table, where all the hors d”oeuvres had been spiked with Dramamine, the party guests found this entertaining rather than nauseating.
“But I wouldn’t go up in the eyrie just yet, Harry,” Gant’s architect advised. “Not today.”
“Why? Worried about the lightning?”
“Not the lightning. The wind. It won’t be near as steady as the rest of the building.”
“No problem there,” Gant said. ‘so long as it doesn’t snap off. . .”
“It won’t snap. You hold up a fishing rod and whip it back and forth, it won’t snap either, but that doesn’t mean you want to be sitting on the tip of the damn thing.”
“Hmm,” said Harry Gant. “Thanks for the warning. Maybe I’ll have a few more hors d”oeuvres.”
An hour later Gant was up in the glass globe, being pitched around the eyrie’s interior like a hot-air balloonist who’d drifted into a cyclone. Clinging for dear life to a slender handrail that was the eyrie’s only fixture, he felt his gorge rising and came within an ace of spraying Dramamine-soaked canap’s all over his high perch. Only a chance vision saved him, for suddenly the gods of the storm granted him a clear view down three hundred feet to the open-air terrace on the 208th floor, where a blond photographer, lashed in place with a lifeline made mostly of duct tape, was struggling to focus a zoom-lens on him. Gant made the best of the bare seconds he had to compose himself: he beat back his rebellious stomach, he steadied himself and stood firm, he fixed his features with a look of casual determination. The heavens exploded around him; below, a high-speed shutter clicked.
The photo appeared on the cover of the next month’s Rolling Stone, with the caption, HARRY DENNIS GANT: A RIDER ON THE STORM OF MODERN TIMES, and if Gant’s lightning-wreathed figure did in some ways resemble a certain fallen angel last seen cavorting on Bald Mountain, that didn’t change the fact that it was one hell of an impressive portrait. From that day forward Harry Gant ceased to worry about biblical allusions, though he was not above making use of them himself.
A good example of this–and a further proof of his former comptroller’s prescience–could be glimpsed in the middle distance at Manhattan’s north end, where a modern-day ziggurat made its own bid for grandeur. From a circular foundation covering several blocks of the defunct neighborhood on which it was being erected, the ziggurat curved upward in a series of exaggerated steps, a steel-boned purgatory mount sheathed in translucent black glass. As of this October day in 2023 it had drawn almost even with the Phoenix at its crown; by Thanksgiving it would be taller, and Gant’s Eyrie that much diminished. By the end of the decade, if Harry Gant had anything to say about it, it would have broken the mile marker.
Babel, he called it. Gant’s New Babel, the fabled Tower completed at last after a five-millennium hiatus in construction. Lower floors available for early occupancy at special rates; call for details.
“Aren’t you tempting fate by naming it that?” the media interviewers asked him time and again, giving him millions of dollars of free publicity in the process. “Aren’t you afraid of history repeating itself?”
“Not a bit,” Gant responded. “This is a new age, ladies and gentlemen. If you want my opinion on the matter of history, I think the real reason God cancelled the Babylonian project is He was waiting for a group of folks who could do the job right.”
A new age: English was the mother tongue now, a mother tongue that had already been fractured into a thousand dialects, only to thrive and grow stronger. Humankind had stormed heaven in homegrown chariots of fire and returned to tell the tale. And as far as God was concerned, if He weren’t already an American at heart, ready and willing to root for American achievement–well, by the time Harry Gant and the Department of Public Opinion were finished with Him, He would be.

Down in the Canyons with Eddie Wilder (and Teddy May)

OK, granted that things might seem a little less overwhelmingly cheery down in the canyons of the city, where certain sections of sidewalk had not known the direct light of the sun in decades, and where pedestrians, who could not be individually fitted with the sort of motion-damping equipment that steadied the Phoenix, had to manage as best they could against the microgales that roared in the open spaces between skyscrapers. But that was no reason not to have a wonderful day.
Consider Eddie Wilder, late of Moose Hollow, Maine, who set off for his new job that morning with the traditional spring in his step that marks a would-be world beater. Looking spiffy in his green and white Department of Sewers uniform, he came up out of the subway at 34th and Broadway and stopped to rubberneck at the sights. Moose Hollow being 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), and Eddie being the first member of his family in three generations to visit a city larger than Bangor, it all seemed fresh and exciting: the Electric Negroes hawking newspapers from sidewalk stands, the anti-collision–equipped taxis performing a ballet of impact avoidance on the crowded streets, the monolithic architecture obliterating the horizon in every direction.
Harry Gant would have been proud, if unsurprised, to learn that the Gant Phoenix was Eddie Wilder’s personal favorite building in the whole of Manhattan. Of course if you were to ask Eddie point-blank about this, he would tell you that his favorite was the Empire State Building. He didn’t know that there was no more Empire State Building, not since Christmas night in 2006, when a fully loaded 747–400 had been struck by a meteorite just after takeoff from Newark International and come screaming out of control across the Hudson. Celebrated disaster chronicler Tad Winston Peller had described this incident in graphic detail in the runaway bestseller Chicken Little and Flight 52, but there being no bookstore or library in Moose Hollow, Eddie Wilder never read it. Likewise–the Hollow’s one newspaper, the Hollow Point, being concerned pretty exclusively with the killing and eating of large animals–he’d never caught any of the press releases in which up-and-coming business mogul Harry Gant had sworn to rebuild the famous landmark in record time, “but more contemporary, with a new name, and twice as big in every dimension.” So Eddie’s confusion was understandable. If the Phoenix seemed somewhat out of proportion with the building in the black-and-white postcard his great-grandfather had purchased on his way home from the Korean War, well, real stuff was always bigger than pictures, Eddie figured.
Eddie’s only gripe about the Phoenix had to do with the Electric Billboards, huge strobing grids of light suspended about three-quarters of the way to the top, which struck him as a defacement of historic property. There were four of them, each about twenty stories tall, one to a building side. The four featured ads jumped clockwise every fifteen minutes, so when the Coca-Cola trademark beamed westward, for example, you knew it was between a quarter and half past the hour. The ad presently facing west, however, was one Eddie couldn’t figure out, which only increased his irritation, like a joke he was too dumb to get. It resembled a page torn from a giant’s day-calendar, except there was no date, just a number, 997, picked out in red on a white background.
‘don’t look so upset,” a voice said. “Nobody knows what the hell it means, not even Harry.”
Eddie turned from the tower to face a woman about his height, plain-featured but with the sort of laugh crinkles around her eyes and mouth that betoken a person of general good humor. Her hair (also plain, an unremarkable shade of brown) was tied back in a lank ponytail; agewise she looked to be in her late thirties or early forties. A cigarette burned between the fingers of her right hand; held loosely in her left was one of the latest Marvel-D.C. graphic novellas, Joan of Arc Returns.
Ordinarily Eddie would have asked about the comic book (he was a mail-order Spiderman fan himself), but he was in New York now and wanted to adopt a big-city attitude as soon as possible. So he pointed at the woman’s cigarette instead and said with what he hoped was a proper tone of urban rudeness: “You know you shouldn’t smoke those.”
She responded by taking a puff, not in a nasty way–she didn’t breathe it in his face–but as if to say that he hadn’t suggested anything she hadn’t already considered long and hard on her own. “You’re right, I definitely shouldn’t,” she said, and added with a wink: ‘don’t gawk too long. You don’t want to be late for work.”
With that she stepped from the curb, raised a hand; a taxi swerved neatly around a double-parked delivery van and pulled up in front of her. Only after she’d gotten into the cab and taken off down the street did Eddie realize she’d been wearing a uniform like his.
You don’t want to be late. . . . He checked the address on the form letter in his pocket and got walking, west towards the Hudson. The brick building housing the Zoological Bureau of the Department of Sewers was on Eleventh Avenue, across from the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Eddie arrived on time and presented himself at the registration desk, where a supervisor named Fatima Sigorski logged him in. “You’ll be in May Team 23,” she told him. “Your coworkers on the team are Joan Fine, Art Hartower, and Lenny Prohaska.” She pushed a pair of what looked like plastic dog tags across the desktop. ‘make sure you wear these at all times when you’re working.”
“What for?”
“Information aid. In case you become eligible for early retirement in a way that makes you hard to identify.” She pointed down the hall at a half-open doorway. “That’s the briefing room. You’ll find Hartower and Prohaska in there. Hartower’s thin and balding, looks like a middle-aged I.R.S. flack. Prohaska looks the same, except he’s got his nose pierced with a zircon. He’s from California.”
“And Miss Fine?”
‘she’ll be holed up in the toilet right about now.”
“Oh.”
The briefing room was laid out like one of the smaller theaters in a multiplex, red plastic chairs facing a tiny holographic screen. Eddie counted about thirty men and women, all in Department uniforms showing varying degrees of wear; he seemed to be the only newcomer. Hartower and Prohaska were standing beneath a framed blow-up of a very old photograph, sharing a copy of the day’s New York Times. The framed photo, which obviously occupied a position of honor on the wall, showed what appeared to be a wino levering himself up out of a manhole.
Eddie went over and introduced himself to his new colleagues. Then he asked, with a cautious nod at the strange photo: “Who’s that?”
“That,” Prohaska said, flaring his nostrils so that the zircon wiggled, “is Teddy May.”
“The greatest human being ever to wade through the city’s effluvia,” added Hartower. “God bless him and rest him in peace.”
“What’s wrong with his right eye?”
“Job-related injury,” said Prohaska. “He cooked it crawling into a utility duct to fix a ruptured steam line while simultaneously fighting off two alligators with his bare hands . . .”
“Alligators?” Eddie said.
“. . . and then, having taken care of that, he went back topside where the temperature was negative nine degrees Fahrenheit (forty below, factoring in wind chill), this being winter. The transition from hot to cold paralyzed every muscle and nerve in his eyelid.”
“Wait a minute,” Eddie said. “Alligators in the sewers? Wasn’t that just a story?”
“What story?”
“You know: the book by that guy who nobody was allowed to take his picture.”
‘did you ever read the book by that guy who nobody was allowed to take his picture?”
“Of course not. Nobody’s ever read that book. And anyway I don’t read books. But even up in the Hollow, everybody knows the story.”
“Well,” said Hartower, “Teddy May lived it.”
“And that’s what we do in the Zoological Bureau? Hunt “gators?”
‘don’t be ridiculous,” Prohaska said. “Teddy May and his men finished off the last of them in the 1930s.”
“True,” said Hartower, “you do still encounter the occasional Gavialis gangeticus cruising around under Little India and Little Pakistan, maybe even a once-in-a-blue-moon Crocodylus niloticus, but no alligators.”
Fatima Sigorski entered the briefing room and clapped her hands for attention. “All right, everybody, let’s settle in.”
‘stick with us,” Prohaska and Hartower said, steering Eddie towards a trio of seats at the back. A familiar woman with a ponytail slipped in as Fatima turned to shut the door; Eddie could smell the tobacco right off, even though this whole building was clearly designated as a nonsmoking environment.
“Hey!” he said, pointing. “I know her. Who is she?”
“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.”
The sewer workers were all seated now; Fatima Sigorski clapped her hands once more for silence. “I have here the advance version of this month’s tactical report,” she began, holding up an Electric Clipboard. “As usual it’s a mix of good news and bad news. Some dedicated work on the part of our Brooklyn division has virtually stamped out the Serrasalmus nattereri infestation under Park Slope. On the minus side, last night some Cuban restaurant owner’s grandfather got zapped to death on the basement john by what sounds like an Electrophorus electricus. There were no actual witnesses and the police think it might be some kind of life insurance scam, so we’re going to wait for confirmation before taking any official action. Still, you probably want to bring a pair of rubber-soled thigh-highs if you go cruising under Spanish Harlem . . .”
Joan Fine sat near the front, wishing she could smoke. But while Fatima Sigorski might turn a blind eye to the occasional cigarette sneaked in the women’s room, she didn’t even allow gum chewing during assembly, so Joan’s only recourse for tension release was the rosary in her pocket, which she fretted with continuously while Fatima spoke. Joan’s mother had given it to her on the day of her first confession; and though what Joan had confessed had been a youthful disdain for Roman Catholic theology, she’d held on to the rosary, calling it a good luck keepsake. The beads were cheap acrylic, but the crucifix was true silver, wrought by a Reformed Carmelite sister who moonlighted as a master smithy. Christ’s silver crown of thorns had been painstakingly engraved with a laser stylus and when held up to a strong light would project the prayer of the Reverend Cabal of Catholic Womanists against the nearest wall, in pinprick letters of fire: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. God make us foolish for our struggle.
Joan thought this would be an apt motto for the Department of Sewers’ Zoological Bureau as well. Which of course was why she’d taken the job.
“Now, as for today’s special assignment: I’m afraid we have a definite confirmation on that new species I hinted about last Friday. Can I have the lights down, please?” The overhead lighting dimmed obediently. “The foot-age you’re about to see,” said Fatima, “was taken by May Team 67 right before the entire crew became unavoidably eligible for early retirement. Roll tape.”
She stepped aside, and the projection screen flickered to light in three dimensions. The viewpoint was a fixed camera facing off the stern of one of the Department’s armored patrol barges. The barge was moving through one of the larger, canal-sized sewer tunnels, and it was immediately obvious that something was wrong: judging from the whitewater spume the barge was kicking up behind it, the pilot was either fighting one hell of a current or, more likely, running away from something at full throttle. As the barge swung hard around a bend, a series of shotgun blasts could be heard, and the booming percussion of big-caliber pistols: members of the doomed May Team emptying their weapons into the sludgy water. To no avail–for suddenly a massive form surged up out of the barge’s wake, toothy maw yawning wide like a razor-studded chasm. The viewers in the briefing room shrank back screaming in their seats as the monster leapt through the screen in flawless 3-D, but it never landed. Right at that point, probably a split second before the camera was smashed from its mount, the editor of the recording had thrown the sequence into a loop, so that the creature froze in place halfway out of the water, twisting back and forth as if to present itself for inspection.
“Carcharodon carcharias,” Fatima Sigorski said, as the terrified sewer workers regained their composure. “Positive I.D. from our friends at the Bronx Zoo. We’re not sure yet how it got down there, but SHQ is theorizing that it’s a flushed pet. That, or another practical joke by those pecker-woods in the NYU Ichthyology Department.”
The shocked voice of Eddie Wilder: “That’s a fucking great white shark!”
Joan Fine looked around at the sound of his voice. Eddie had gotten halfway out of his chair and was paused there trembling, while Prohaska and Hartower, each having grabbed an elbow, tried to sit him back down. ‘shut up!” Prohaska hissed frantically. ‘shut up and behave, you want to get a demerit your first day out?” Joan smiled. Eddie would probably end by annoying her, but she couldn’t help liking someone still innocent enough to speak without tact or knowledge of euphemism.
Fatima, however, did not appreciate the breach of usage.
“It’s a Carcharodon carcharias,” she scolded, punching every hard consonant in the Latin. “An alternative-environment-adapted Carcharodon carcharias. I trust we’ll all remember that if we get within earshot of a media rep. There’s only one thing in the sewers with less than ten letters in its name, and it’s not ‘shark.””
‘sorry,” Eddie said. ‘sorry, but it looks just like–”
“Furthermore, SHQ is continuing its practice of assigning code referents to notable members of a given species. Though there’s no indication yet that we’ll be seeing more than one of them–I certainly hope we won’t–it’s been resolved that individual Carcharodon will be named after beer brands. This,” she indicated the still-twitching hologram, “is Meisterbrau. That’s the name I expect to hear you use if you talk about it over lunch–not Smiley, not Jaws, not Mack the Knife, but Meisterbrau. Is that clear?” Eddie nodded meekly.
“Now our available information indicates that Meisterbrau has been feeding in the tunnel complex around the Times Square Interchange. All May Teams are to converge on that area carrying maximum armament. Team leaders remember to sign out for the weapons and get yourselves a Negro from the pool; also, methane and other toxics levels are high today, so be sure to top off your oxygen tanks. That’s all, people. Get to your barges, good luck, and be careful out there. And watch your language.”

The Morning Schedule

A polite disembodied voice spoke from Harry Gant’s wrist: “Quarter past eight, sir.”
Gant pulled up his sleeve to reveal the face of Dick Tracy, sized to the dimensions of a quartz timepiece. Gant’s thumb brushed the slash of Tracy’s chin, and he said: “That you, Toby?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Gant. Ms. Domingo sent me. Time to come down, sir.”
“What am I scheduled for this morning, Toby?”
“You’re giving an address at the Gant Media & Technical School for Advanced Immigrant Teens at nine o’clock, sir. After which you’re holding a crisis-reduction meeting with the Department of Public Opinion concerning the pirate Philo Dufresne. And, of course, the Negro problem.”
“Oh,” Gant said, “that. Toby?”
“Yes sir?”
“Is there something special about today that I should remember? Not business; check my personal file.”
“Yes sir.” On the 208th-floor terrace, the Automatic Servant scratched the side of its head with a dusky finger. Then it said: “You might be thinking of your wedding anniversary, Mr. Gant. That is to say, it would be your anniversary today, if you were still–”
“Right,” Gant said, snapping his fingers. ‘day before Halloween, funny I could even forget it.”
“Former Ms. Gant,” Toby added, “also has a birthday coming up next month. Her forty-first. And you’ll be forty-three next week.”
“Right, right. OK, Toby, you go tell Ms. Domingo I’ll be down shortly. Also tell her I’m going to want six Portable Televisions for media support at that school thing at nine. That’s all.”
“Yes sir,” the Servant said, and was gone. Gant lingered in his eyrie another minute yet. Good old Joan, he thought, his memory of her tinged with mild regret but no ill will. The last he knew of his ex-wife she’d been working some blue-collar job and running a welfare shelter in the Bowery. A meager use of her talents. . . but he smiled just the same, for thinking of Joan made him think of the past in general, and thinking of the past in general made him think of himself, of the American-Dream-come-true storybook tale that was his life.
Harry Dennis Gant, born in 1980 in the back seat of a broken-down Toyota parked at a rest stop off the Jersey Turnpike. His mother a construction worker by trade, his father a schoolteacher, both of them jobless and homeless at the time of Harry’s nativity, the dying Toyota representing the last of their possessions. And yet from these humble beginnings–the twentieth-century equivalent, Harry Gant liked to think, of being born in a log cabin–look what he had made of himself in only forty-three years. Look at all he had wrought in the world, and his life not half finished yet, not half.
Love of self and love of country lit a fire in the hearth of Harry Gant’s soul, warming him to the new day. He was glad to be alive; glad too to have such a wonderful gift–the gift of inspiration–to bestow on the Advanced Teens he would address an hour from now. With a reverent nod to the great city below, he lifted the trapdoor in the floor of the eyrie and started down the ladder.

A Word about the Negro Problem

The Negro problem bedeviling Gant Industries should not be confused with the African-American problem, which was simply that there weren’t any African-Americans anymore, or any black Africans either for that matter, at least not that you could invite over to your house for dinner. Back at the turn of the century a literal Black Plague, its origin and cause still completely unknown, had turned inner cities across the United States into overnight ghost towns, emptied Nigeria and three dozen other sub-Saharan nations, and sent the scant handfuls of survivors fleeing to an ever more remote series of hidden sanctuaries. Celebrated disaster chronicler Tad Winston Peller had written a book about it, the runaway bestseller They Say It Started in Idaho: Tales of the Black Pandemic of Twenty-Ought-Four. This popular work had served as the basic text for no less than seven miniseries, not to mention a weekly science-fiction drama, Dark Heart, Red Planet, about a family of jazz-loving astronauts who escape extinction by being on Mars at the time of the plague outbreak.
But all of that is another story. The Negro problem had nothing to do with disease or cable television; it was solely a consumer-marketing phenomenon.
The Self-Motivating Android–test-marketed by a Disney subsidiary in 2003 and mass-produced by the fledgling Gant Industries as the Gant Automatic Servant starting in 2007–achieved initial prominence as a cost-effective industrial labor substitute. The first Androids were only vaguely humanoid in appearance, intended to be functional rather than eye-pleasing, but Harry Gant, looking ahead to a time when his Servants would be affordable in the home as well as in mines and factories, insisted on a more aesthetic design. And so from 2010 on it became possible to purchase Automatic Servants in a wide selection of realistic skin tones and somatotypes. Gant, a great believer in offering variety to his customers, certainly didn’t ask his sales force to push any one particular model over another; he was as surprised as anyone when Configuration AS204–your Automatic Servant in basic black–began outselling all other versions combined by a margin of ten to one.
For a long while it didn’t appear that there would be any public relations problem. People didn’t seem to mind–in fact seemed strangely comforted by–the sudden profusion of dark-skinned Servants, all of them polite and hard-working to a fault. The ace of corporate advertising is the basic human desire to minimize or look away from gross unpleasantness, to which end the AS204s acted like an army of Sidney Poitiers and Hattie McDaniels dispatched to exorcise the memory of the African Pandemic; but the flipside of that ace is the peril of lurking guilt, and when Harry Gant was told about a D.A.R. heiress who had purchased three hundred Servants for use in a sort of antebellum theme park on her plantation estate, he used his advertorial influence to keep the media away from the story.
He couldn’t stop American idiom, though. The Oxford University philologist kept on retainer by Gant’s Department of Public Opinion estimated that the expression “Electric Negro’ had entered the English vernacular sometime between 2014 and 2016.
“Electric Negro’: an unkind nickname that, in addition to being terribly disrespectful of the dead, summoned up a host of images that Gant Industries did not want associated with a quality product like the Automatic Servant. It had begun cropping up in print and on video several years ago: a trickle of usages in various nationally circulated publications, as well as a sly reference on one of the late-night talk shows, to which Vanna Domingo and the Public Opinion Department had responded with a barrage of outraged faxes and threats of advertising boycott. For a while the problem seemed to evaporate, only to reappear after a Delaware country-metal band released a hit CD entitled Electric Negroes on the Neon Prairie. As of this August even the Wall Street Journal had used the expression, in a headline no less, and the battle to keep “Electric Negro’ out of the media stylebooks appeared to have been lost.
And that was the Negro problem. Not a big problem, Harry Gant would have been the first to point out: so far, sales had not suffered in the slightest, and the general public remained quite happy with their Servants, no matter what they might call them.
But in fact, of Electric Negroes and the potential for trouble, Harry Gant still had a lot to learn.

Reading Group Guide

1. In a disclaimer at the beginning of the novel, Ruff states, “The Public Works Trilogy concerns itself solely with 2023 as it exists in 1990.” What does he mean by this? Is this a book about the present or the future? What elements of the novel indicate that it was conceived in the 1990s? What, if anything, is out of date? Does it hold up to an early-twenty-first-century century reading?

2. Early in the novel, Ruff invents a scenario in which an airplane crashes into the Empire State Building, collapsing the structure and obliterating an icon of the New York City skyline. In the wake of September 11, 2001, what does this eerily prescient, semi-comical element mean? How are Philo Dufresne’s eco-pirates, who are labeled terrorists by the corporate establishment, similar to and different from the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington, D.C.? What other correlations do you find between Ruff’s 2023 America and the post–9/11 climate in America?

3. The America of Sewer, Gas & Electric could be described as a comic dystopia.

How does Ruff use humor to balance the imperfections of this world? Is the humor situational or stylized? Is the satire effective?

4. Discuss the ethics of Harry Grant. How does he resemble or differ from the popular idea of the corporate CEO? How do his ethics differ from Joan’s, and what effect did this have on their marriage?

5. What role does famed disaster chronicler Tad Winton Peller play in the story? Revisit his television interview on pages 188–189. Do you find his remarks disingenuous? Do you identify with him? How do you explain catastrophe as a form of entertainment?

6. On pages 190–195, Kite recounts her discussion with a suffragette on the subjects of feminism, war, peace, and hope. Having experienced war herself, Kite believes, “Unfortunately, what makes war terrible isn’t that the soldiers are men; it’s that men are soldiers. Let women become soldiers–or politicians, or diplomats–and you haven’t changed war at all” (pp. 191–192). Do you agree? Consider her remark, “And if we cannot break this cycle, if we cannot count on woman to change the fundamental nature of our reality, then I ask you: what hope do we have?” This novel is filled with strong female characters. Discuss your favorites. Are the women in the story distinctly written? Is the portrayal of women in this book different from most other novels written by men?

7. In your opinion, how does the author handle race in this novel? Identify and discuss several instances where racial stereotypes are used for satiric effect. Why were black people singled out by G.A.S. for extermination? How do the various black survivors in the novel deal with the genocide of their race? Is the motivation behind the African Pandemic reflective of attitudes in today’s sociopolitical spectrum? Are there parallels between the pandemic and the modern world?

8. Consider the novel’s many biblical references–New Babel; Joan’s two brief ascensions into heaven; Philo’s lemur-rescue plan, based on the Book of Exodus. There are dozens more. Discuss the ones that are most significant to the stories and characters. Is Christianity a matter of faith or historical reference for these characters? Do you think Ruff is poking fun at religion?

9. Joan relates the story of her old college boyfriend, the Republican Archie Kerrigan, who introduced her to Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. It was a futuristic novel, “not the future as it had actually come to pass, but the future as it existed in the 1940s’ (p. 254). How did it change Joan? Has a book or person you’ve known ever had a profound effect on your worldview, even if you did not agree with its ideas? After reading the synopsis of Atlas Shrugged, do you see any parallels to that novel and Sewer, Gas & Electric?

10. In chapter sixteen, Joan and Ayn Rand engage in a heated debate in the New York Public Library. Do you agree with Ayn Rand’s assertion, “You either accept reality or deny it . . . the only means of knowledge and the only guide to rightful actions at your disposal is reason: the black and white rules of logic applied to the concrete evidence of the senses’ (p. 338)? Where do you stand with Joan’s belief in the importance of seeing “the world in shades of gray” (p. 337)? How far should pity and charity be extended? Do you believe Joan got the best of Ayn Rand? Is this your first exposure to the philosophy of Ayn Rand? If you are familiar with her writing, do you believe this is a fair representation of her ideas? Finally, do you believe Ruff’s dedication of this novel to Ayn Rand is genuine or ironic?

11. What is “the Eye of Africa”? How is it significant that it falls into the hands of Maxwell? What happens to it at the end of the novel, and what effect might it have on the rest of society? Does “the Eye” resemble something in the actual world we know today?

12. In his classic I, Robot, Isaac Asimov created the three rules governing robot behavior, the first of which states, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” John Hoover’s G.A.S. is certainly held to no such law. Why does the machine break with its creator and pursue genocide? In defense of its miscomprehension over the garbled instructions in Club 33, G.A.S. says, “First symptom of true intelligence. Selective self-deception” (p. 425). Is cruelty also a symptom of higher intelligence? Discuss the ways in which artificial intelligence may or may not improve upon human intelligence and behavior.

13. What is the effect of the novel’s jumbled narrative? Did you like this patchwork storytelling style or did you find it confusing? Why does it succeed or fail? The narrative is also rich with digressions like Salvatore and Frankie’s job of guarding Meisterbrau at the Brooklyn Aquarium, or Bartholomew Frum’s Cult of Cargo story (pp. 233–239). Share and discuss your favorite divergent stories. What do they contribute to the novel as a whole?

14. Consider the “bad guys’ in this novel–John Hoover, G.A.S., Troubadour Penzias, Meisterbrau. Are there others? Do they represent pure evil or organized systems taken to extremes? How do they reflect our society’s notion of evil in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries?

15. Why is this novel called the Public Works Trilogy? Is Ruff’s three-part structure essential to the story, or does it serve a more comic purpose? How do the novel’s three sections represent their respective titles: ‘sewer,” “Gas,” and “Electric”?

Recommended Reading:

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut; Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace; Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson; Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker; The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey; I, Robot by Isaac Asimov; Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack; Stone Junction by Jim Dodge; Neuromancer by William Gibson; CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders; Skirt and the Fiddle by Tristan Egolf; Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be by Walter Truett Anderson