High above Manhattan, android and human steelworkers are constructing a new Tower of Babel for billionaire Harry Gant, as a monument to humanity’s power to dream. In the festering sewers below, a darker game is afoot: a Wall Street takeover artist has been murdered, and Gant’s crusading ex-wife, Joan Fine, has been hired to find out why, in this wild romp by the acclaimed author of Fool on the Hill and Lovecraft Country.
The year is 2023, and Ayn Rand has been resurrected and bottled in a hurricane lamp to serve as Joan’s assistant; an eco-terrorist named Philo Dufrense travels in a pink-and-green submarine designed by Howard Hughes; a Volkswagen Beetle is possessed by the spirit of Abbie Hoffman; Meisterbrau, a mutant great white shark, is running loose in the sewers beneath Times Square; and a one-armed 181-year-old Civil War veteran joins Joan and Ayn in their quest for the truth. All of them, and many more besides, are about to be caught up in a vast conspiracy involving Walt Disney, J. Edgar Hoover, and a mob of homicidal robots . . .
“[An] SF roller-coaster satirizing the horrors of our nascent technocracy . . . Told with breezy good humor, this exuberantly silly tale will find an audience among admirers of the day-glo surrealism of Steve Erickson and the tangled conspiracy theories of David Foster Wallace.” —Publishers Weekly
“A turbocharged neo-Dickensian hot rod [with] plenty of intellectual horsepower.” —Neal Stephenson
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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."
"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.
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 canapés 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."
"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."
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?"
Excerpted from "Sewer, Gas & Electric"
Copyright © 1997 Matt Ruff.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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