Second paragraph of third chapter:
New York finally started importing its water, first by aqueduct from Westchester, and later, when the immigrant population explosion had taxed that supply to its limit, from dams in the faraway Catskill Mountains. Publie Works engineers and laborers (many of them only recently arrived from Italy) dug a tunnel from the Catskills to the Hill View Reservoir in Yonkers, then bored south through the bedrock under the Harlem River to bring the water into the city proper. The last segment of the tunnel was blasted open on January 11, 1914, and an incidental consequence of its completion was that it made possible one of the most peculiar marathons in city history: an underground hike of a hundred and twenty miles, from the Catskill Mountains to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
Originally published in 1997, this is a satire channeling the sprits of Neal Stephenson’s early work and the Illuminatus! trilogy. It’s set in October and November 2023, focussed on New York. The Empire State Building was destroyed in 2006 when a Boeing 747 accidentally crashed into it, but the Twin Towers are still standing. Donald Trump died in 2013 when the spaceship in which he planned to travel to Mars blew up on the launchpad, but Queen Elizabeth II is still alive and well, and personally directing military strikes against her enemies. There’s a mutant great white shark in the sewers, Ayn Rand resurrected as an AI personality, a 181-year-old civil war veteran, Walt Disney’s chief engineer and a billionaire and his ex-wife at the heart of the story.
So far so good. But there is a massive problem with the set-up: a recent pandemic, which turns out to have been bio-engineered, has killed all the African and African-descended people in the world, leaving the rest of us to get on with it. This fails on biology – it would really be much much easier to design a plague that only kills us genetically homogenous white folks, rather than targetting the super-diverse population of Africa and its diaspora – and on good taste – this is really not a sensitive or sensible way to address the future of racism, especially since African-Americans are then economically replaced by robots called “Electric Negroes”. Ruff has paid his dues to an extent with Lovecraft Country, but I can’t quite believe that this was thought acceptable in 1997.
I greatly enjoyed Ruff’s later Set This House in Order, which I actually rated as my top sf book of 2021, but I only finished this so that I could complete my project of reading books set in 2023. Apart from the racist plague, which is a major negative, there is not enough structure or characterisation and there are too many straw man debates with the reincarnation of Ayn Rand. But you can get it here.
Books set in 2023:
Revelations of the Dead-alive (aka London and Its Eccentricities in the Year 2023), by John Banim (1824)
Looking Further Backward, by Arthur Dudley Vinton (1890)
The Bedlam of Immortals, by Enki Bilal (1980)
Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling (1988)
The Turing Option, by Harry Harrison with Marvin Minsky (1992)
Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, by Matt Ruff (1997)
Killing Time, by Caleb Carr (2000)
The Free Lunch, by Spider Robinson (2001)