Sewer, Gas & Electric

Etelka Lehoczky reviews Matt Ruff's book "Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy".

Published February 18, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

if there were any doubt that the movement generally known as "cyberpunk" is maturing, then Matt Ruff's second book dispels it. The authors in this genre have tended to reshape the obsessions of conventional science fiction, dramatizing our fears about out-of-control technology, corporate power and the vicissitudes of late capitalism. Ruff seems unaffected by such anxieties. He dwells comfortably in the world that his renegade contemporaries have sketched.

Most of his story, which concerns a band of misfits' attempt to stop a massive, quasi-corporate conspiracy, takes place in a balkanized New York City of the near future. Its outlines may owe something to the middle-class horror stories of Jack Womack, but its substance is pure Neal Stephenson: technological thrills, environmental devastation, pop culture and corporate power. Stephenson even contributed an enthusiastic back-cover blurb, and it's easy to see why. This is a solid choice for anyone who thinks the world needs more books like "Snow Crash."

True to the form, Ruff assembles a wild plethora of characters, including a scatterbrained technology mogul, a female ex-pornographer turned investigative journalist and a band of environmentalist pirates in a green-and-pink submarine. His high-tech gizmos may not be quite as titillating as those dreamed up by other authors -- weird though they are, these runaway robots just can't compare to brain implants and neural modification in sheer, shuddering yuckiness -- but his people and situations are refreshingly far-out. He's sacrificed probability for amusement's sake, and in most cases it's proven a delightful choice. The fauna-hunting tugboats he describes as prospecting in New York's sewers may be far-fetched, but they sure make for fun reading.

Ruff throws around a lot of brainy references, but they don't bog down the plot. Clearly he intends them to amuse, not to challenge. Take his fabulously comic reincarnation of Ayn Rand as a holographic genie trapped in a hurricane lamp. The lamp just happens to fall into the hands of Joan, a radical activist, to the dismay of its inhabitant, who promptly labels her a "whim-worshipping, muscle-mystic altruist."

As might be guessed from Rand's presence, a fair portion of the book is taken up with Joan's -- and Ruff's -- wrangling with objectivism. Ruff doesn't have anything particularly new to say about it, though, so his assaults, while enjoyable, aren't particularly enlightening. In this they match the overall character of the book, which inhabits the landscape of current speculative fiction without testing its boundaries. Within those boundaries, though, Ruff's achievement is considerable. It's no mean feat to dance lightly across ground that's as yet so poorly trodden.

By Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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