Author of two novels, Fool on the Hill (1988) and Sewer, Gas, & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997). Both novels are fantastically inventive; though Ruff often gets thrown into the Sci-fi/Fantasy corner, it's not the settings of his books that drives them, but what he does with them.

The son of "an irreverent minister and a missionary's daughter," Ruff attended Cornell University, graduating in 1987. He spent most of his time there taking inspiration for his writing - Ithaca, NY works nicely with active imaginations. The main character in FotH, Stephen Titus George, is at least partly autobiographical.

I was introduced to Ruff's books in college, when two friends of mine discovered their mutual affinity for Fool on the Hill. After hearing their gushing reviews, I went and picked up a copy, only to finish it the following day.

Among the protagonists of the novel are the Bohemians, a chaotic organization of Cornell students including: Aphrodite, the Minister of Love; Panhandle, the Minister of Lust; Woodstock, the Minister of Impetuousness; Preacher, the Minister of Ministry; and:

Z.Z. Top, the Minister of Bad Taste, was a study in soiled leather. Bringing up the rear on a grumpy burro (a San Diego Padres baseball cap had somehow been affixed to the animal's head, which did not improve its temper; neither did the personalized plastic Disneyland license plate - CHICO 69 - dangling from its tail), he looked like the cloned offspring of James Dean and Fidel Castro after a quick trip though a garbage disposal. He gave the impression of seldom having bathed in his lifetime, and this impression was not incorrect. One of the Great Unwashed, the Top filled his saddlebags with can upon can of the most loathsome beer money could buy: Black Label Light, Iron City, Utica Club, God bless this swill. He was always kind to children, though.
- Fool on the Hill
Fool on the Hill is akin to a Greek play, set at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. It is complete with omnipotent meddlers, sprites, dark powers, the protagonist (S. T. George) fighting a dragon built by ambitious architecture students, and a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-ish pair of talking animals. It indulges the wish of every fantasy fan and child - that there is more to the world than meets the eye. And it is this that sets Matt Ruff apart, his ability to take a known world (in this case Ithaca, NY), and fill it with the magical and fantastical, leading you to believe that if you look hard enough you can find it.

Ruff's second novel does the same thing - he takes the world of the early 1990's, and extends it just a bit, to 2023 (similar to Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash). Throw in a world Disney conspiracy, a mutant shark, and a satire of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and you get Sewer Gas, & Electric.

Abbie Hoffman's penalty in Heaven for committing suicide: teaching Ayn Rand a sense of humor, from SG&E:

"All right," Abbie Hoffman said. "Let's try something a little simpler. 'Knock, knock.' "
"I beg your pardon" Ayn Rand said.
"Not 'I beg your pardon.' I say 'Knock, knock,' and you say 'Who's there?' "
"But I already know who's there. I can see you."
"Yeah, but pretend you can't see me. Just -"
"You want me to deny the evidence of my senses?"
"No, see, the idea is -"
"Are you a communist?" Ayn asked suddenly. "Is that why you desecrate the American flag?"

Ruff's third novel, due out sometime in 2002, is supposedly neither sci-fi nor fantasy. Titled Set This House in Order, it's about the relationship between two people with multiple personality disorder; while I'm sure Ruff will take liberties with this to introduce fantastic elements, it will be much less of a typical (if you can call it that) fantasy novel than FotH.

Between the publication of FotH and SG&E, Ruff wrote a short novel titled Venus Envy, apparently about a woman in mental asylum who is dropped into an alternate universe and has an affair with the daughter of the farmer in Grant Wood's American Gothic. It was initially rejected, and Ruff hasn't let anyone look at it in some time.

Ruff maintains a good website at Check it out for info on his favorite books, alternate cover art, and a bunch of neat notes on his vision of the future in SG&E.

Update: Matt Ruff's third novel, Set This House in Order, has been published. I'm halfway through it; it's great so far (though much darker), and I'll put up more when I'm done.

First of all, let me applaud plink's writeup (see above). This writeup is in no way intended as a detraction of its predecessor, for which I am incredibly grateful, as I was able to unearth even fewer facts about Matt Ruff than those plink lists. Ruff is one of my favorite fiction writers, but darned if he isn't a hard guy to get information about! That said, this writeup is about why Matt Ruff is possibly my favorite fiction writer, and definitely one of my favorite writers: his books, while not perhaps great literature, are just plain fun to read.

As mentioned in my writeup on Ruff's first novel, Fool on the Hill, I bought the book on a whim, and (within hours) was so pleasantly surprised that I bought several copies for friends on my next trip to Ithaca, NY (home of Ruff's alma mater, Cornell University, and for years the only place Fool was sold, because it was the novel's setting, and the book had become something of a cult classic on campus). No fewer than three of my friends got copies of Fool as their respective winter holiday gifts that year.

"I decided I wanted to write for a living when I was five years old---good timing, as it gave me sixteen years to practice before I had to start paying for my own food."

---excerpt from Matt Ruff's author interview at

Although clearly a first novel in some respects---the at least semi-autobiographical protagonist, S. T. George, leaps to mind---it's impossible to ignore the love that suffuses Fool. Packed with magic, engaging characters, and philosophical digressions ranging in topic from Shakespeare to the lack of good English words about the act of sex, this book makes me laugh out loud.

I suspect it was my cousin Mike, one of the friends whom I'd converted to Fool fandom in urgent fashion, who alerted my mom to the fact that Matt Ruff had a new novel coming out, and so I received Sewer, Gas, & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy in the winter of 1997. Again I was pleasantly surprised, this time with the added bonus of having been too busy being a college freshman to know anything of the outside world, new book releases included.

"...the greatest single influence on Sewer, Gas, & Electric was Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Sewer was originally conceived as a satire of Atlas, and though it eventually mutated into something a bit different, many of the satirical elements are still there: Rand's own ghost appears as a character in the novel, resurrected from the dead and forced to spend time in the company of altruists."

---Matt Ruff, again in the interview

Sewer filled me with the same familiar sense of exhilaration I'd gotten on my first reading of Fool and knew so well from multiple rereadings. No matter how wild Ruff's plotlines and premises, no matter how colorful his characters, I could read with confidence that everything was magically going to come together in the end, in such a way that anything could happen, but that whatever did happen would be more right than anything I could imagine. In Sewer, Ruff's lovable ecoterrorist Philo Dufresne is like the Good Twin to Neal Stephenson's Sangamon Taylor, the Toxic Spiderman of Zodiac fame. The latter is the closest analogue to Sewer I can come up with, except that Sewer doesn't suffer from Stephenson Ending Syndrome, and its ecoterrorism is only a subplot among many other plots which converge in glorious hilarity.

Long story short, I await Ruff's third book, Set This House in Order with bated breath. Back when I still aspired to write fiction, Fool on the Hill was everything I wanted my little imaginary novels to be when they grew up. I wish I had words to praise him more highly.

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