Sewer, Gas & Electric — the origins of the story

I. The Title

The initial spark for Sewer, Gas & Electric came during a fit of procrastination. Sometime in my junior year at Cornell University, on an afternoon when I probably should have been working on the manuscript for my first novel, Fool on the Hill, I instead found myself browsing through the sci-fi/fantasy section of the Cornell Campus Bookstore. My thesis advisor, Bob Farrell, had recently made a disparaging comment about the glut of Lord of the Rings-style fantasies on the market: pseudo-medieval sagas—usually trilogies—in which heroic bands of humans, elves, dwarves, et al. fight to save the world from the clutches of a Dark Lord. Thinking of this as I browsed, I paid special attention to the trilogies, many of which did indeed match Bob’s description: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever; The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever; The Sword/Elfstone/Plumber’s Helper of Shannara; The Collected Works of Piers Anthony, etc., etc.

Because I didn’t want to get back to work, and because the book you are supposed to be writing is never quite as interesting as other books you could be writing, I asked myself what sort of trilogy I might come up with. I wondered: what would be the weirdest title for a trilogy that might still conceivably be a good story?

All sorts of candidates immediately suggested themselves: a trilogy in which each book was named after a punctuation mark (The ?, ! & . Trilogy); a trilogy in which each book was named after a phase-state of matter (The Gas, Liquid & Solid Trilogy); a trilogy in which each book was named after a dirty word (The Expletive Deleted, Expletive Deleted & Expletive Deleted Trilogy); a trilogy in which each book was named after a conjunction (The If, And & But Trilogy).

Of the twenty or so titles I came up with—I really didn’t want to get back to work—only one made a lasting impression: a trilogy in which each book was named after a different public utility (The Phone, Gas & Power Trilogy; The Sewer, Light & Water Works Trilogy; something like that). The reason this one stayed with me is probably that it was the only title to suggest an actual setting and storyline, however vague: I envisioned a huge, futuristic metropolis in which the heads of the various public works divisions were engaged in some sort of political struggle. Though this wasn’t enough to do anything with, it was enough to keep the idea alive in the back of my head, even as I returned to Fool on the Hill.

Eventually, I had a further inspiration.

II. The Hook

I get a lot of ideas for novels. To actually become a novel, though, an idea has to have a hook—some element or aspect compelling enough to keep me engaged for the years it will take to flesh out the story.

A hook is not just a gimmick; there are some great gimmicks that are too shallow to qualify as hooks. One early rejected subplot for Sewer, Gas involved a mailman (let’s call him Harry) who set out on his route one morning only to discover that terrorists had rigged an atom bomb in the back of his mail truck (don’t ask me why; I never got that far). The gimmick was that the bomb’s detonator was wired to the truck’s speedometer: once the truck got over sixty-five miles an hour, the bomb would arm itself and announce its presence; after that, if the truck’s speed dropped below sixty-five, the bomb would explode.

The fact that the bomb was nuclear was part of the gimmick. It added a nice conflict of interest to the story. I envisioned Harry as an extremely selfish individual, concerned first and foremost with saving his own skin; the city fathers and the police, meanwhile, would be more worried about the bomb’s blast radius. They’d want to get the truck way out in the country somewhere, away from populated areas; but Harry, believing that this would reduce the authorities’ incentive to save him, would refuse to cooperate and would instead try to keep the truck within the city limits. Adding yet another layer of conflict would be Harry’s ex-wife (call her Joan) who would just happen to be riding in the mail truck, discussing late alimony payments, when the bomb announced itself. Joan, considerably less selfish than her ex-husband but every bit as stubborn, would spend much of the story fighting to get into the driver’s seat.

Parts of this plot line did make their way into the finished novel. Harry the selfish mailman became Harry Gant the self-absorbed billionaire. Joan his ex-wife became Joan Fine his lapsed-Catholic-and-political-activist ex-wife. Even the bomb is still there, sort of. But the speedometer gimmick wasn’t substantial enough to build a whole book around—not a Matt Ruff book, anyway—and in the end I reluctantly jettisoned it, consoling myself with the thought that I could always use it in some other story.

Action-movie fans know the punch line: in the summer of 1994, as I was nearing the end of Sewer, Gas’s first draft, Twentieth Century Fox released Speed, a film in which a (non-nuclear) bomb is wired to the speedometer of a Los Angeles city bus, set to explode if the bus drops below fifty miles an hour. Speed was a huge hit, grossing over $120 million dollars in the U.S. alone—a figure I would have to sell roughly 17 million paperbacks to equal. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a twinge of envy, especially about the money, yet at the same time I know it’s not something I could ever have done. Speed was a fun movie, but it would have made a very thin novel.

Ironically, it was another Twentieth Century Fox action picture that gave me the hook I needed for Sewer, Gas. In 1988 Fox released Die Hard; the plot, which was original at the time, had Bruce Willis as an off-duty policeman playing a game of cat and mouse with a gang of heavily-armed thieves. I enjoyed Die Hard immensely and must have seen it half a dozen times while it was still in theaters. Around my third or fourth time through—after I had memorized all the fight scenes—I noticed something funny about the casting.

There’s a type of character in Hollywood movies that my friend Stuie Brinegar refers to as “the Amusing Black Man.” The Amusing Black Man is a comic bit player who happens to be African-American. Sometimes he is a true clown; sometimes he is just put-upon, like the dreadlocked Jaguar driver whose car Keanu Reeves commandeers and wrecks in Speed. Whichever, the Amusing Black Man is typically the only black man in the entire story, and that’s the problem—while there’s nothing wrong with minor comic roles, there is something wrong with ethnic typecasting.*

What made Die Hard so remarkable, once I bothered to notice, was just how many Amusing Black Men it had in it. Most films limit themselves to one or two. Die Hard has five. There’s Argyle, the limo driver named after a sock, who plays his stereo so loud that he can’t hear machine guns tearing up a police car directly behind him; there’s Theo, the thieves’ computer expert, who cracks sports jokes while his colleagues are killing cops; there’s F.B.I. Agent Johnson, whose Caucasian partner is also named Johnson, leading to the inevitable joke “I’m Agent Johnson. This is Special Agent Johnson. No relation.” (More humor: in the end credits the two characters are listed as “Big Johnson” and “Little Johnson.” Get it?); there’s a nameless black SWAT team member who has a close encounter with a thorn bush. And then there’s Officer Al Powell, who starts out as an Amusing Black Man but later graduates to Tonto status.

Of all the Black Men, it was Officer Powell I felt sorriest for. Like the original Tonto, Powell clearly had the heart to be a hero—he saves Bruce Willis’s life in the last reel—but fate and the screenplay had conspired to keep him a sidekick, a glorified cheerleader (“You hang in there, man,” he croons to Willis over the radio during a tense moment. “You hang in there.”). It occurred to me that he might resent this, and in an idle moment I imagined him, gun in hand, bursting into a room full of white screenwriters to take his revenge: “Hang in there, man”…BANG!…”I’m with you, man”…BANG!

This struck me as a good scene for a novel; I’ve always liked stories in which fictional characters take on a life of their own. I turned it into a what-if scenario: What if, sometime in the near future, a special effects company came out with a line of androids designed to look and act like Amusing Black Men? What if these androids got fed up with their stereotyped roles and turned on their creators?

It sounded promising, but there was one obvious problem with the idea: If any American company dared to market a product called the Amusing Black Man, about two seconds later a whole host of real black men—angry, not amused—would descend on that company like God’s wrath. This led to a second what-if scenario: What if there were no more real black men? What if all the real black people in the world somehow came to be replaced by an artificial, Hollywood-inspired version? And what if…hmm…what if white people didn’t really mind?

In the years since I started working on Sewer, Gas, a number of folks—most of them white—have suggested to me that this is not a tasteful line of speculation. Probably not; but I knew from the first that it was an excellent hook.

III. The New World Order

Very early in Sewer, Gas’s evolution, my idea about the Amusing Black androids—who came to be called Electric Negroes in the novel—met up with another notion I’d been toying with, that of writing a satire of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The connection is not obvious: though Rand held some controversial views on racial politics (she condemned the 1964 Civil Rights Act as “the worst breach of property rights in the sorry record of American history”), race relations were never a fundamental issue for her, and do not figure in her fiction at all. Still, I thought I sensed a thematic link between my stereotyped automatons and Rand’s vision of a capitalist utopia.

Like Joan Fine in Sewer, Gas, I first read Atlas Shrugged when I was in college. Though I eventually grew to love Atlas, warts and all, my initial reaction was much more ambivalent. No question, it was a fun read: As a Protestant minister’s son I am partial to apocalypses anyway, and Rand’s plot kept me riveted, even though I figured out fairly quickly how it had to end. Her political and ethical beliefs were more vexing: not so much the beliefs themselves, at least some of which I grudgingly came to admit had merit, but rather the way in which she presented them. Despite her reputation as a champion of reason, Rand came across to me as a demagogue and a bully, as much propagandist as philosopher. Logic alone wasn’t really enough for her: She shored up her arguments with name-calling and a healthy dose of emotional manipulation. Most troublesome of all, she seemed to be pushing a secular version of inerrantism.

Inerrantism is a conservative Christian doctrine that holds the Bible to be the infallible word of God. Implicit in the doctrine is the belief that Scripture is not only error-free, but accessible and unambiguous as well—any two people of sufficient faith ought to be able to look at the same biblical passage and reach the same conclusion as to its meaning. Since the text is beyond reproach, disagreements are the fault of the interpreters: a sign of their impiety.

My father liked to joke about inerrantists, saying that at the very least they ought to be able to agree on which church to belong to. But they don’t: You will find inerrantists in almost every Protestant denomination. So either the doctrine is wrong, or the people who espouse it are one faithless bunch of SOBs.

You do not have to believe in God to think like an inerrantist. All that is required is an unrealistic expectation of consensus, coupled with a dark suspicion of anyone who does not fall into line quickly enough. Political correctness is a kind of inerrantism: The militant Vegan who tells me I should be boiled alive for ordering lobster Thermidor operates under the assumption that no decent person could possibly fail to agree about the value of a crustacean’s life. That we do disagree proves that one of us is deeply depraved—and it’s not him.

Historically, of course, human beings have exhibited an annoying tendency to disagree over just about everything. If the inerrantists are right, this speaks badly for us as a species: Contradiction is a sign of bad faith, yet we are constantly contradicting one another. Even our wise men cannot agree: America’s Founding Fathers, having declared that “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” were forced to compromise on the U.S. Constitution because they could not see eye-to-eye on some very basic truths.

What the entire Continental Congress could not accomplish in four months of debate, Rand’s fictional jurist Judge Narragansett does single-handedly in the space of an evening. In the closing pages of Atlas Shrugged, we find the Judge alone in his cabin, line-editing the Bill of Rights: “He sat at a table, and the light of his lamp fell on the copy of an ancient document. He had marked and crossed out the contradictions in its statements that had once been the cause of its destruction. He was now adding a new clause to its pages: ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade…’”

Judge Narragansett is working alone rather than as part of a committee because, unlike the original Founders, the architects of Rand’s newer, more rational America are in total agreement about how a proper society ought to be run. They also share the same tastes in music, art, and literature, the same sexual preferences, and the same vices. If Atlas Shrugged had been set in 1998, they would doubtless have had the same favorite Spice Girl, too.

Rand presents this unanimity of outlook as a triumph of reasoned principle, but I just find it creepy: the Freethinkers’ Party hijacked by pod people. Describing the ideal citizenry of her new republic, Rand writes that they will be “as consistent and reliable as facts,” which raises the question of what is to become of all the inconsistent citizens—folks who try to be consistent, work really hard at it, but who, at the end of the day, still prefer Sporty Spice to Baby Spice, even after it has been explained to them that no reasonable person could possibly feel that way. I suspect that in the longstanding tradition of inerrantism, such heretics would have to be got rid of somehow. Got rid of, and replaced with something less contrary.

Androids, for instance.

IV. The Rest

That is how it started: with an odd-sounding title, a fistful of stereotypes, and some random musings about a cult philosopher. Of course there was more to it than that: I haven’t told you where the pink-and-green submarine came from, or how Howard Hughes and a troop of ring-tailed lemurs came to figure in the story. But finding the hook was the most important part. Once I had that, the rest of the novel inevitably fell into place.

The novel: I decided that my “trilogy” would actually be a single book, in three sections. Sewer would, tongue-in-cheek, describe the general state of the world in 2023 A.D.; Gas would feature a resurrected Ayn Rand and a whole lot of philosophical hot air; Electric, the lightning-paced climax, would describe the rebellion of the Electric Negroes. And running through it all would be the ongoing misadventures of a mutant great white shark named Meisterbrau. But that is another story…

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*The Amusing Black Man has a more dignified sister, the Respectable Black Female Judge. Check it out next time you see a courtroom drama: Odds are good that the person wearing the robes will be a black woman, unless Roscoe Lee Brown got to the casting call first. The only exceptions to this rule are period dramas set in the American South, and murder mysteries in which the judge turns out to be the killer.